District 15 ships off "space shuttle" bus
A "space shuttle" that has been stationed in Palatine Township Elementary School District 15 since 1997 is expected to take off from the district's launchpad next week for a nearly 100 mile journey to Camp Lowden in Oregon, Illinois, where it will be used by the Blackhawk Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
The space shuttle, whose body is a 1987 school bus, has been part of the district's curriculum for the past 18 years after mechanics attached a fold-down tail and wings and a fiberglass nose. With some white paint and counters and computers installed in the bus interior, it could almost be mistaken for an actual space shuttle.
"Just seeing the shear size of the space bus, I mean the students' eyes get all wide, and it is such a unique experience," said Blackhawk Area Council Program Director Emily Rinaldi.
About once a year, District 15 students got the opportunity to jump into a blue space suit and spend time split between the shuttle and mission control, a mobile classroom also parked at Kimball Hill School in Rolling Meadows.
Wires connected computers in the shuttle to those in mission control, enabling students to communicate between the bus and classroom to solve math and science problems in preparation for liftoff.
"Being able to put on the blue suit really got them involved in the activity," said Rinaldi, whose son participated in the district's space shuttle program. "Working in a space shuttle, that's a lasting memory. And that really drives home the curriculum that is being taught."
The space program was initially launched in 1997 with a grant from the District 15 Educational Foundation and with assistance from military contractor Northrop Grumman Corp., which operates the largest defense plant in the state in Rolling Meadows.
The bus spent its first decade as a regular yellow school bus, but around 1997, District 15 employee Mark Exline and engineers from Northrop Grumman started transforming it into a shuttle.
Exline, the shuttle's main fabricator for the district, says the conversion took about a year-and-a-half.
"It was a big deal when it debuted in 1997, and here it is, 2015, and they were still using it up to this past school year," Exline said.
He says mechanics tried to mirror what an actual space shuttle looks like.
"Basically the nose on the front is just electrical conduit that was bent into shape and melded together as a form for the fiberglass work that was done on the front of it," Exline said.
District 15's shuttle looks much more realistic than one in a bus in Wausau, Wisconsin, they used to get ideas, Exline adds.
He says he's "blown away" that the shuttle was used up through the end of last school year.
"It wasn't just the bus -- the whole curriculum that went with it was pretty excellent."
In a March 2015 letter announcing the program's end, District 15 Assistant Superintendent for teaching and learning said the district is moving on to new curriculum.
"As the world continues to change, our curriculum changes, as well," Schnoor said. "The funds used to support these programs in the past will now be used to fund other district programs."
And while many kids now have access to iPads and computers where they can see photos of space, and even watch a live stream from the International Space Station, Rinaldi says the space shuttle offered something special.
"Instead of just having something in your hands, you're physically getting in the space bus. It's more interactive," she said. "I don't think space is ever going to be obsolete, especially for kids. There's no way we're ever going to explore all of space and it's also the mystery and excitement of the unknown and the adventure for a kid."
She says once the space shuttle lands in Oregon, the Boy Scouts plan to make it more mobile and incorporate scouting merit badges and STEM programs.
The camp also has a 21-foot dome that they'll use as a planetarium and to house mission control.
The Boy Scouts are hoping to have the shuttle ready for boarding by the spring.
Director of Transportation Operations Tom Bramley says the district will miss the space shuttle.
"There's a lot of people in the district who are very sad to see it go," he said. "But the idea that we're giving it to an association that enhances children's learning is gratifying."