Space Brain Hack Asks Students to Draw on Pandemic Experience for Astronaut Mental Health

Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

The first iteration of the Canadian Space Agency’s Space Brain Hack initiative for students draws upon a theme they likely know well – mental health and isolation.

The target audience of Grades 6 to 12 covers a group who has spent the last three years, likely, working through occasional remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like astronauts, the students therefore learned about working in isolation in challenging circumstances.

“As we send humans further out into space with smaller spacecraft for extended periods of time, the [mental health] approaches that we use won’t work,” Janice Cudlip, CSA’s youth initiatives lead for science, engineering, mathematics and technology (STEM), told SpaceQ. 

The remote learning challenges students grappled with will be similar to challenges Artemis astronauts will face on the moon or on Gateway – two of CSA’s priority areas. The students’ ideas will therefore be something the CSA very much wants to hear about, Cudlip said.

“Youth immediately relate to this from their own lived experience – they know what it feels like to be isolated, confined, under extreme mental stress, physical stress, and so on and tried to combat boredom in constructive ways,” she said. “We felt this something – even if they weren’t automatically or already enthusiastic about space challenges – they would be able to see the value or the contribution that they make to this problem-solving.”

Brain Hack will run annually with different themes; this one wraps up on Feb. 23, 2023 and a shortlist of selected projects will get feedback from the CSA or the community, just like a real-life space project. The top 10 projects will be shown on the CSA website, the top 3 will participate in a virtual work session with CSA experts, and the grand prize winner will also get a virtual visit from a CSA speaker or astronaut.

Here is how the challenge works. Students – whether working in a classroom or in a more homeschooled setting – will receive a mission briefing from their educator to get the context of how CSA supports astronauts and families “for mental and physical wellness,” Cudlip said. 

The goal is to show students just how broad mental health is, to immediately encourage them to narrow down their focus to one manageable problem to discuss, iterate and then send in to the CSA through an adult. 

Even after the challenge closes, Cudlip emphasized, resources are available to encourage the students to keep thinking about space – all in the hopes of trying to reach them before key moments in their educational journey (as the younger set goes on to high school, and the older set to CEGEP, post-secondary or the workforce.)

The CSA generally has been focusing their education initiatives around Gateway, robotics, artificial intelligence, health and lunar rovers – much like the programs that they are working on at large with Canadian companies. For students, the CSA hopes to build up “STEM literacy,” along with skills such as working collaboratively with diverse populations. 

“You don’t necessarily have to be fascinated in chemistry, or in physics, or in aerospace technology, to make contributions to space. The space jobs of the future will require contributions from many different fields,” Cudlip said.

“This is our opportunity to show that the pool that will eventually fill the jobs of the future can be very wide and very deep. We want to include as many students as possible in in thinking about space challenges and getting excited about space missions.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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