by Jennifer O'Brien

Aussie innovator, Solange Cunin, brings space down into the classroom

Mar 09, 2017
Technology Industry

A self-confessed space geek, Cuberider co-founder and CEO, Solange Cunin, has achieved at 23 what most can only dream of. Not only has she helped launch the first Australian mission to the International Space Station (ISS), but she is changing the mindset of kids on the ground, helping them do real-life space adventures.

In 2015, Cunin co-founded Cuberider which is considered a leader in innovative STEM education, and already has 1,000 students participating from around the country from about 60 different schools.

“Our first space mission happened December 9 last year,” Cunin said, addressing a packed crowd at the FITT 2017 International Women’s Day Luncheon in Sydney.

On that day, Cunin said the company launched the ‘very first’ Cuberider space mission to the ISS. The payload consisted of 1,000 experiments by Australian students from 60 schools. Students’ experiments ranged from testing variations in the earth’s magnetic field and Einstein’s theory of relativity to an astronaut’s exposure to radiation and the creation of music and art using data patterns.

“We spent about three days in space orbiting the earth and had a rendezvous with the international space station. The reason why this is so amazing is because it is actually the first time Australia has ever been involved. There are 16 countries involved in the international space station and Australia is just not part of it,” she told the crowd.

“When we were getting the rocket mission organised, we actually had to get permission from all of these nations to have the very first Australian payload go up there. And it wasn’t for Australia’s leading scientists conducting research or even military applications, it was from a group of teenagers who were learning to code for the first time. Who were learning the proper scientific method and learning how STEM really works in the real world. And that was something that NASA and us were very excited about.”

An Aussie first

Remarkably, Cunin said Cuberider is the first Australian organisation to win government approval to fly a mission to space. It’s also the first time so many Australian high school students have been given access to the ISS.

The Cuberider Space Program, which takes students on a real space mission to learn core science and mathematics, as well as workforce-critical problem solving skills, includes NASA approved technology, online learning resources and orbit time to run the experiments on the ISS.

It gives students a STEM experience, incorporating skills, knowledge and syllabus requirements across Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, specifically created for years 7, 8, 9 and 10. “Cuberider gets rid of your stale, stereotypical classroom that has basically been the same for the last hundred years. We turn them into a mission-control centre, so we take students on a journey within the classroom to space. They start learning important skills like coding and data analysis, all the way through to communication and teamwork conflict resolution,” she said.

“The end goal, and the pinnacle of this entire journey, is a real-life space mission to the international space station. They are not learning to code and learning all these really important skills just for the sake of it, or because the Department of Education says they have to. They are learning because they want to be part of the space mission, something bigger than what anyone individual can be part of. Something incredible and amazing, and the most inspiring thing you can really be apart of.”

She is proud of what the company and the students have achieved thus far. “It your first ever coding project is the first ever Australian space mission, what can’t you achieve? And that is the bar we are setting. What can’t you go off and achieve in the world? Through this, we’re trying to create the next innovators and leaders.”

Destined for space industry

Certainly, Cunin was destined to work within the space industry. Given her first telescope at the age of eight, by 14 she knew she wanted to be an aerospace engineer.

As the story goes, it wasn’t until she watched the live stream of a SpaceX rocket launch that she knew her long fascination with space would become a reality.

For the past three years, she has been involved in the space industry in management, research and operation roles.

Growing up “off the grid” on a farm in northern NSW with hippie parents, Cunin said she was inspired to think big.

“I was a bush kid, running around the forests, climbing trees, getting bitten by bull ants and avoiding snakes. I was very fortunate to have a really luminescent night sky. . . So that was one of the key influences for me as I was growing up,” she said.

“I have very clear, vivid memories as a child looking up into the night sky, which was extremely brilliant. As I grew older, I realised working on a farm with power tools my whole life, I loved making and breaking things, so I married my love for the night sky with my love for breaking things and decided I was going to be an aerospace engineer. But as a 14-year-old in a rural small town, telling everyone you are going to work for NASA, was unheard of.”

And while she admitted to being “the weird kid that had the outlandish aspirations” with no space industry role models in Grafton and no point of reference, she still managed to find success. “I said it with conviction and I was really clear that was what I wanted to do. There were no doubts in my mind and I actually got the support of friends and family,” she said, offering up her big message to students.

“We live in a world where we are put down, and told what to do, but if you actually believe in yourself and have conviction [people will] follow, and you will get to where you want to be. I have basically gone from the bush kid making mud pies in the dirt to Australia’s very first space mission and rewriting the national space policy act of being first for the whole country. So believe in yourself.”