Taking the Astro Pi Challenge
Branksome Hall students win tournament after coding experiment runs on the International Space Station
Two students at Branksome Hall — Toronto’s only all-girls, all-years IB World School — are the first Canadian (and only all-girls) team to win the European Space Agency’s Astro Pi Challenge Mission Space Lab.
The path to victory for Grade 11 students Adele Crete-Laurence and Alexa Vasilakos took more than a year from their initial project brainstorm in their computer engineering class. The end-product of that first whiteboard session was The Dark Side of Light, an experiment investigating how light pollution visible from space is impacted by energy sources and rates of energy consumption.
When the two Branksome students learned they were one of 10 winning teams (out of more than 5,000 competitors worldwide) there was only one way to describe their feelings — over the moon.
An international challenge
Adele and Alexa are high school students working on a level that, even a few years earlier, would have been the stuff of science fiction. For them and their classmates there was no fiction involved, just science.
Gail Schwiersch, a teacher at Branksome Hall, introduced the Astro Pi Challenge’s Mission Space Lab to her computer engineering class in 2017, the first year Canadian students were eligible to participate. Over the course of the year ahead, she supported Alexa, Adele and their classmates along the way, giving them the space (no pun intended) and the academic latitude they needed.
Schwiersch first learned about the program while teaching in London, England.
“One of the things I’ve been trying to do,” says Schwiersch, “is to grow more awareness about the Astro Pi Challenge in Canadian schools, where it’s still largely unknown.”
From whiteboard to orbit
“We started with a huge brainstorm,” says Alexa. “We took up the whole whiteboard space in the classroom, imagining what we could do, and we narrowed it down from there.”
Through the course of that session and the days and months following, the girls developed their idea, presented it and coded it. Then came the moment they all were waiting for: when their program ran aboard the orbiting International Space Station, collecting the data that would form the heart of their experiment.
If that experience wasn’t prize enough, as one of Mission Space Lab’s 10 winning teams, Adele and Alexa had the special opportunity to interact with European Space Agency staff and also participated in an international web-conference with British astronaut Tim Peake. They asked Peake about the challenges he experienced in his journey becoming an astronaut, something that is of perhaps particular interest to Adele who last summer got her glider pilot’s license and continues an interest in aviation.
While the lessons of the Astro Pi Challenge were many, for the girls the lasting experience is one of learning something about themselves.
“I never saw myself as someone who would get involved in STEM,” says Alexa, “and to get involved, and to really push our limits to see what we could do.”
In every way, they were operating at an entirely new level, one that, at times, was even surprising to their family.
“My parents were, like, ‘wait, what did you do?!’” Alexa laughs, perhaps at the absurdity of it all, as well as the joy. “Even when I explained it to them, they still didn’t really understand. But they thought it was really neat that we had won an international competition.”
Both students admit that the experience has altered how they see their skills, but also how they would like to build upon them.
“I’m thinking maybe aerospace engineering,” says Adele, thinking about her future. All of that says something to the skills and the abilities of the students themselves, but also to the culture of their school.
A culture of innovation
Since it was founded in 1903, Branksome Hall has charted an innovative path in girls’ education, creating new programs, new initiatives, and building an environment in which girls’ can dream big. The school also has a tradition of pioneering new concepts in education — a tradition continued by their leadership around the Astro Pi program.
Both Alexa and Adele have attended Branksome since Junior Kindergarten, and have had front row seats to the school’s progress in developing its unique approach to innovation.
“It’s about helping our students develop innovation mindsets so that they can be prepared for our rapidly-changing world,” says Michael Ianni-Palarchio, Branksome’s Director, Technology and Innovation. “They’ll need to be creative, flexible thinkers to thrive and succeed in whatever journeys they choose.”
As impressive as the Adele and Alexa’s achievements are, it’s a reminder that these things don’t just happen. They are the product of talent, yes, but also an environment that prizes academic engagement and collaboration, and includes the tools and the support necessary to encourage it.
Clans and tartans, prefects and polo shirts—the initial gestalt is very traditional. Some of the buildings on campus are heritage buildings, which adds to the luster, though they pre-date the founding of the school. Still, the spirit of the school is strikingly modern. The IB program starts early, as does the view to globalism. Branksome has a sister campus in South Korea, offering a hint of the dedication to an international gaze. Lists of notable alumni don't always reflect the work of the school—princes, for example, appear on those lists no matter what they achieve at school or afterward—though Branksome might prove the exception, in part because of the consistency of the achievement it demonstrates. Arts, letters, philanthropy, and leadership are all well represented in the list of notable alumni, just as they are within the school itself. Branksome Hall sets its sights very high, to be sure, and the ideal student is one who shares the core vision and is able to function in a very diverse, challenging, expansive environment.