The winners of this year’s Space Brain Hack at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) focused on mental health matters, including giving astronauts “sensory simulation and a virtual escape” from their circumstances while staying in touch with family and friends.
SpaceQ spoke with CSA’s Janice Cudlip, the CSA’s youth initiatives team lead for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), about the annual student activity set that seeks to link their learning with real-life space missions.
This year’s edition was focused on securing astronaut mental health in isolated conditions, to deliberately bring in students’ own experience from living through the pandemic. Cudlip said she was especially impressed with the students’ solutions, which included playing, exercising, access to natures, creative expression and good sleep habits.
“They had a lot to contribute to this topic based on the time of isolation, and only being able to connect through digital mechanisms to people they care about and love,” Cudlip said. “I think their solutions really demonstrated that they had learned quite a lot from that experience.”
The grand prize winners were Bhavishyaa from Oakville, Ontario, for PeaceMaker (Grades 6 to 8 category) and Maya from Calgary, Alberta, for Cosmic Companions: Digital Pets in Space (Grades 9 to 12 category), according to CSA materials. CSA only provides the first name of the students for privacy reasons, as they are minors.
“The top three winners for each category will be invited to take part in a virtual working session with CSA experts, during which they will present their solution to the experts and the other winners and receive feedback about their idea. Bhavishyaa and Maya [also] win a virtual visit from a CSA expert or astronaut,” agency officials wrote.
“PeaceMaker” is a VR headset proposal including “stereo sound, detection gloves and preprogrammed places on Earth that the astronaut is fond of”, which would change based on the astronaut’s brain waves and especially meant to be adapted for moments of isolation.
“Cosmic Companions: Digital Pets in Space” would use digital pets as artificial intelligence (AI) assistants to give astronauts simulation during periods of boredom, reminders for tasks, and provide “multimedia content, such as music, movies, documentaries, and audio files that are unique to their preferences.”The CSA featured 15 entries all told, with 10 from the Grades 6 to 8 category and 5 from the Grades 9 to 12 category. You can see the whole list here.
The Next Space Brain Hack
While the topic of October’s Space Brain Hack is a tightly guarded secret, it appears it will touch in some way upon the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) push for moon exploration.
Future editions of Brain Hack will be somewhat related, “linked to some of the challenges that that we will face, having humans staying on the moon for periods of time,” Cudlip said. But more details will have to wait until the fall, so as not to give unfair advantage.
The Moon mention is no surprise given the news from CSA of late. Astronaut Jeremy Hansen was selected in April to fly aboard Artemis 2, which will circle the moon in 2024 for the first moon mission in 52 years. Then in the Canadian Lunar Workshop late last month, CSA officials said Canadian astronauts could also be involved in some way with the Artemis 4 and 6 landing missions.
Canada secured these seats through the Canadarm3 robotic arm for Gateway, first announced in 2019 alongside a technology development program known as LEAP (Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program). MDA is now developing the arm for future use.
In Budget 2023, CSA committed to extending LEAP and added a new lunar utility vehicle. A CSA-backed mini-rover built by Canadensys will also explore the moon in 2026 or so under the science leadership of Gordon Osinski, a notable crater researcher at Western University who has trained several astronaut classes in geology.
Next year’s Brain Hack will also expand the CSA’s existing commitment to diversity and inclusion. For example, the quality of homeschooled submissions this year inspired Cudlip and her colleagues to pay that group special attention. (The definition of homeschooling, incidentally, can vary considerably: examples can include students educated by parents or by the community, or students taking correspondence studies.)
Cudlip also said the CSA may pivot its tactics to engage provinces’ requirements for multidisciplinary project-based learning, “to make sure that that we’re giving educators the resources they need.” For example, some activities may be flexible to allow educators to do the materials across an entire term, rather than a single class session.
“That’s the beauty of the Space Brain Hack; we really can change it. The challenges are so rich that you can approach it from very different perspectives,” she said. “You could talk about it from health or media or communications. You could talk about space technologies. You could talk about mental health. You could really connect it to lots of different points in your curriculum.”
That point is especially crucial for helping students stay engaged in STEM as they consider careers. Space Brain Hack is meant to show students, Cudlip said, that space jobs exist beyond the highly advertised astronauts, engineers and scientists.
“So even if you’re not a chemist at heart, or you don’t play with electromagnets at home, you can still get into this challenge in a way that speaks to your other interests,” she said. Linking up with these interests is the hope that the students can then use space as a way of connecting the things they learn into their own community – as CSA is constantly looking at spinoffs of training and technology for adaptations in remote environments on Earth, just to name one example.
“Understanding of Earth applications is the direct link for our mandate, which is the socio-economic benefits for Canadians of our investments in space,” Cudlip noted. As for specific educational linkages for the 2023-24 edition of Brain Hack, she said it would be difficult to mention those without giving away the topic.
But speaking generally, the CSA seeks to include key partners or collaborators in all of its contests and to provide support through grants and contributions for different types of institutions, whether not-for-profit or academic. “Targeted experiences”, such as commanding a rover, are also available for interested space students to teach them space skills such as design thinking and problem-solving.
“When I think about all of the initiatives that CSA is offering, we’re trying to open as many doors as possible for curious students and educators. So whatever way they need to enter into space learning and hands-on activities we want to at least have a marker for them to find us,” Cudlip added.
Updated 10:19 am ET: With additional information on this years winners.