Students shoot for the stars with their own satellite

The Elgin Courier: November 14, 2018

After months of time and effort designing and building their own satellite, a group of young students are raising money so that they can watch their hard work pay off in person.

The NASA class at McDade Independent School District is composed of nine students, all sixth through eighth grade, taught by Carolin Mitchell. They got together starting in late this summer to build a small satellite, which will be transported to the International Space Station in a few weeks.

A vital part of starting this class was Quad-M, a satellite-launching company in McDade founded by Victor Dube. It all started this past summer when one of Dube’s customers approached him with an extra spot for a satellite on an upcoming launch. Dube approached McDade ISD superintendent Barbara Marchbanks with the opportunity, and she was interested.

The school gathered a group of interested students, and Dube guided them on designing and building the satellite. He also taught them how to use computer-aided design software in order to build the necessary parts in the Quad-M shop. Then, the students inspected the parts to make sure the dimensions were correct and figured out how to put the parts together.

Colby Miller, one of the students of the class, said designing the satellite in SolidWorks, the computer-aided design software they used, was his favorite part of the process.

“With SolidWorks, you must be very involved and you must be very talented, because there are a lot of different commands,” he said.

The satellite is four inches by four inches by eight inches long and weighs about 12 pounds, according to Dube. It is made of mostly aluminum and has 18 reflectors mounted on the side so that the students can point a laser at it to track it.

After the satellite was built, it was sent to NASA to be approved and wait for the launch. The satellite will launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket traveling to the International Space Station. There, it will be put on another spacecraft, the Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus, and launched higher above the space station. The International Space Station is 400 kilometers above Earth, and the Cygnus will take the satellite another 100 kilometers, meaning the satellite will ultimately orbit 500 kilometers, or over 300 miles, above the surface of the Earth. This is farther than the distance between San Antonio and Dallas.

The reason for launching the satellite in a second craft, Dube said, is to make sure the satellite stays in orbit longer. A satellite launched from the same altitude as the International Space Station will stay in orbit for about six months before falling close enough to Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. However, the satellite will stay in orbit for about a year, maybe two, if launched from an altitude of 500 kilometers.

Once the satellite is in orbit, the students will be able to track and study the satellite’s trajectory as it orbits above them. The U.S. Air Force will be able to get the satellite’s coordinates and give them to the school. The students will build a telescope with which they can point a laser at the satellite’s coordinates and look for a signal coming back down to Earth. From this information, the students can gather information about the satellite’s trajectory, such as its speed and altitude.

Jocelyn Howard, another student, said other than learning how to use the computer-assisted design machines, her favorite part was seeing the project come together as a final piece.

“I’m really excited because it will go on for a year or two after it’s launched, and we get to track it,” she said.

Currently, the class is raising money in order to pay for a trip to see the launch in person.

The launch was originally scheduled for December 5th at a launch site in Virginia, but it was moved to Cape Canaveral, Florida and rescheduled to the afternoon of December 4th.

Assuming this launch date holds, Jocelyn would receive the best birthday present ever; her birthday also falls on December 4th.

Joey Miller, Colby’s father, said that since weather and other factors at NASA can change the launch time at any minute, not knowing for sure when the launch will happen is the biggest challenge.

“As much as (NASA) wants to help out the kids and be as accommodating as possible, they have to do what’s best for NASA,” Miller said. “Things can just alter at the last minute.”

Mitchell said this trip would be a new experience for a lot of the students.

“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, not many of us get to actually see a launch at all,” she said. “I want them to have as many experiences as possible that we can tie into education and into the real world.”

In addition to a GoFundMe page, the students and their parents have been raising money by asking for donations at the Hogeye Stroll and the Hogeye Festival in October. They came back to Elgin to raise more funds at last week’s Sip, Shop & Stroll with a scavenger hunt and a bake sale.

Miller said he has seen the community pitch in to help the students.

For example, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6115 raised money for the students and donated a check for $1,000 on Monday, and the VFW auxiliary donated another $300.

“Being local, the kids are part of our future,” former post commander Beto Reyna said. “None of us ever had that opportunity when we were in school. Now that these kids have this opportunity to shine, well, let us help them and let them shine for their accomplishment.”

According to Reyna, this has been the most substantial donation Post 6115 has made. The donation was made possible with plenty of income from events such as Hogeye.

Before the funds donated by Post 6115, the students have raised around $5,000 as of Monday, and their goal is $7,500.

The students’ parents, including Joey and Amanda Miller, have witnessed their children’s hard work over the past few months.

“To give up your summer and go to the school when you don’t have to go to school … because you’re passionate about something truly showcases the type of kids they are,” Joey Miller said. “They spent their summer building something that was a passion for them, so they’re just trying to get these donations to see that passion take off in a rocket.”


Contractor chosen for Lower Elgin Road Bridge repairs

The Elgin Courier: October 17, 2018

The repair of the Lower Elgin Road Bridge faces a hard deadline of December 31 for all construction to be finished.

During a regular meeting on Tuesday, October 9, the Bastrop County commissioners court approved a motion to award the contract for the Lower Elgin Road Bridge Repair Project to Beck-Reit and Sons, Ltd. In their bid, Beck-Reit and Sons submitted a lump sum price of $122,022.00, lower than the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s estimated repair cost of $127,215.90.

The other contractor that submitted a bid for the project, 304 Construction, LLC, submitted a lump sum price of $147,000.00.

Bastrop County purchasing agent Leon Scaife said contractors are chosen based on best value; in this case, Beck-Reit and Sons was not only the best price, but also responsive at turning in the necessary documents.

Three-quarters of the project will be funded by a grant from FEMA, while the rest will be funded by a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. FEMA-funded projects are typically funded 75 percent by FEMA with the county contributing 25 percent. In this case, the county received a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture to cover the remaining 25 percent, meaning it will ultimately cost the county nothing. The county will initially pay for the project and then be reimbursed for the project from the grants.

The FEMA grant requires a hard deadline of December 31 for all construction and repairs on the bridge to be finished. Scaife said this December 31 deadline does not apply to all the paperwork, but Texas Department of Agriculture’s deadline of January 27 includes all paperwork. The term of contract is 60 days, which is an average amount of time for a road or bridge project, Scaife said. The 60-day term of contract starts when the county sends the contractor a notice to proceed letter; once the county gets a signed contract, the contractor submits bonds for the project, and then after a pre-construction meeting, the notice to proceed letter is sent.

The deadline is quickly approaching, Scaife said, and he hopes to have the pre-construction meeting within this next week and hopefully start construction by the end of the month.

“We got down to the very end of the term here,” Scaife said.

Much of the time was spent “going back and forth” on working out all the grants, Scaife said.

“Time is of the essence,” County Judge Paul Pape said at the commissioners court meeting.

Although not a part of the contract itself, Pape mentioned at the meeting how one condition of the Texas Department of Agriculture funds is that the county must keep the bridge for five years and delay giving it to a buyer such as local film studio New Republic Studios. In August, the film studio signed a memorandum of understanding with the county as a potential buyer. However, he said the county would work with New Republic Studios on an agreement for the management and operation of the bridge during that time.

Club grows a community for gardeners

The Elgin Courier: October 10, 2018

As the Texas flora prepares for the approaching cooler weather, the Elgin Gardening Club braved mist and the threat of rain to learn about winter gardening techniques at Bloomer’s Garden Center after their October 2 meeting.

The Elgin Garden Club was started by a group of retired teachers who wanted a garden club with no dues and no membership, according to club president Bonnie Groves. In 1993, Groves had just moved from Vermont and joined the club; one year later, the previous president, Mary Jo Galbraith, retired, and Groves was chosen as the new president.

Groves had previously been the president of an antique car club in Vermont; she said the spirit of the garden club is much more supportive and collaborative than the car club.

“There were the Ford people arguing with the Cadillac people and the Cadillac people arguing with the Packard people,” she said, “but in our garden club, everyone helps everybody else. We’re all good friends, and it’s an easy job because we’re all such nice people.”

Groves said when she came to Texas, she had to find out the different challenges of gardening in Texas when compared to Vermont. She said one major challenge in Texas is the heat and the lack of rain. For example, Groves loves roses and has a garden full of various varieties; some types, such as antique roses and China roses, do well in Texas, and she has a couple of Old Gay Hill Red China roses that she doesn’t water and are now taller than her.

“I really didn’t know a whole lot about gardening in Texas, which is a lot different than Vermont,” Groves said. “In Vermont, you have to think about winter hardiness; here in Texas, you have to think drought-tolerant.

“The garden club is very nice, we swap plants. I found out what does well here in Texas, and it’s not what does well in Vermont.”

The garden club isn’t just shopping at Bloomer’s and trading plants, however; they also host speakers who talk to the club about plants and gardening. Last month, during the September meeting, the club hosted Mike Shoup from the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham. Shoup brought roses, including some of the pink, fragrant Savannah rose, which Groves bought.

The club also hosts an annual plant sale every May that funds a scholarship for one graduating student. This year, the club raised enough funds to provide two scholarships, thanks to plants donated by Gabriel Valley Farms, a nursery in Georgetown.

They also take a couple of trips per year to places such as East Austin Succulents.

“When we get together, everything is a good time,” Groves said.

The Elgin Garden Club holds a monthly meeting at 9:30 a.m. on the second Tuesday of every month in the First National Bank community room.

City requests hearing to oppose new wells

In response to an application from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to drill a number of wells to tap into the Simsboro aquifer, the City of Elgin has requested a contested case hearing before the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District protesting the application. The Elgin City Council discussed the situation during the October 1 regular meeting.

LCRA applied for a permit to pump 25,000 acre-feet, or about 8 billion gallons, of water per year from the Simsboro aquifer by building eight wells on land in northeast Bastrop County. The application raised concerns from citizens and local entities, such as Aqua Water Supply Corporation and the City of Elgin, about the amount of water LCRA would be taking from the aquifer. According to Doug Prinz, director of utilities for the City of Elgin and a member of the board of directors for the Lost Pine Groundwater Conservation District, the district hydrologist estimated the maximum production allowed by the LCRA permit would result in a 300-foot drawdown of the water level of the aquifer. The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates the water supply for Bastrop and Lee Counties, held a public hearing on September 26, where citizens spoke out against the permit.

The City of Elgin has four wells that take water from the Simsboro Aquifer, Prinz said. The pumps for these wells are about 300 feet down, which is right around where the hydrologist found the possible drawdown would be. Prinz said Elgin’s wells are located on an area where the aquifer is not as deep, while the LCRA wells would pump water out of a deeper area.

The City of Elgin is permitted for about 6,000 acre-feet per year out of the Simsboro aquifer, and Prinz said the city uses about 30 percent of that currently for the whole city.

 “Right now, we’re okay, we’re pumping about 30 percent of our permit so we have room to grow,” Prinz said, “but if the water isn’t there, what are we going to do?”

The next step is to set up a preliminary hearing with the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, where all parties who requested a contested case hearing will present the evidence for why they have standing under the law to participate in the case, according to Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District general manager Jim Totten. Next, the judge from the State Office of Administrative Hearings will make a recommendation to the board about who has standing, and the board will decide which entities receive party status. Then, the State Office of Administrative Hearings will hold a hearing with these parties, the judge will make a recommendation to the board based on the evidence and the law, and the board will make a decision on what to do.

“It’s probably going to be a lengthy process,” Totten said.

Bastrop County begins process to give new life to old bridge

The Elgin Courier: October 3, 2018

After suffering flood damage and awaiting an uncertain fate, the historic Lower Elgin Road Bridge is on the path to being restored as a public pedestrian bridge and, potentially, a part-time filming location.

The Lower Elgin Road Bridge crosses Wilbarger Creek on Lower Elgin Road. It was built in 1888 in order to help farmers in the Utley region transport their crops across the creek directly to Elgin. The bridge is an iron Pratt through-truss bridge; according to Lower Elgin Road resident Aina Dodge, there are very few such bridges left in Texas today. In 2017, the bridge was approved for the National Register of Historical Places due to a nomination letter from Lower Elgin Road resident Debra Ferguson.

The bridge was used until 1997 when the Texas Department of Transportation determined it could no longer handle the traffic of Lower Elgin Road and it was turned into a pedestrian-only bridge. In 2015, heavy rain and flooding caused damage to the bridge; debris had displaced decking planks, and fallen trees bent the railings, among other damage.

In February of this year, the bridge was offered to the city of Elgin and would have been moved to city property, but the city council voted against taking on the bridge during the February 6 city council meeting. Dodge told the city council at that meeting that moving the bridge would be fine if there are no other options, but other options should be explored first before a final decision is made.

“(The) value (of historical resources) is significantly higher when they’re in their original context,” Dodge said. “When they’re removed from their original context and put somewhere else, like in a park that doesn’t represent their original purpose, it’s not that significant.”

Due to the flood damage, Bastrop County applied and was approved for grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Texas Department of Agriculture to restore the pedestrian bridge to pre-flood conditions.

In August, the county signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with New Republic Studios about possibly taking the bridge.

“We are enthusiastic to work with Bastrop County and the State of Texas on making sure we keep a valuable piece of history around for others to enjoy,” New Republic Studios CEO John Robison said in a statement. “This iconic little bridge has played a very important role in so many movies showcasing Central Texas. We’d certainly miss it if it was gone.”

Once at least one potential buyer signed the MOU, the county could begin work repairing the bridge. Once the work is done, the county would be reimbursed by FEMA and the Department of Agriculture and then will auction the property to the highest bidder.

Part of the MOU stated that the buyer of the bridge would have to keep it open to the public and a six-foot security fence would be constructed around the bridge. Raymond said the fence would be opened for public use during business hours. She added that, like any other property, if the studio is using it for production, the bridge would be temporarily closed down.

On Monday, October 1, the county closed the request for bids from contractors to repair the bridge. The next step is to select a contractor for the project and start repairing the bridge, Raymond said.

“We’re just in a holding pattern at this point as far as the building and reconstruction of the bridge, but it has been good,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of conversations with the county … and the organization Friends of the Bridge (a group including Aina Dodge). Everyone wants it to get restored back to a condition where you can enjoy it and walk on it and we could utilize it for some productions.”

The Lower Elgin Road Bridge has appeared in a number of productions, including Michael (1997) with John Travolta and Joe (2013) with Nicolas Cage, as well as television show Fear the Walking Dead.

“One of our motivations for having the bridge is to be able to utilize it and have it immortalized in moving pictures,” Raymond said. “It’s just up the road from (New Republic Studios), so it would be a good extension of what we already currently have.”

Dodge said she thinks New Republic Studios taking the bridge is a great solution and would be a “win-win-win” for the county, New Republic Studios and the bridge itself.

“Elgin is such a historic town, as is Bastrop, and it’s easy to see the history of those places,” Dodge said. “But it’s tougher to interpret the history of the rural areas of the county. With progress from Austin exploding out east, it’s tougher and tougher to keep our identity as Bastrop County, so I think this plays a huge role in maintaining that history.”

New van could help adventures continue

The Elgin Courier: September 26, 2018

Despite a diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy that caused doctors to not expect her to live past the age of two, Dana Carpenter, now 41, has always been an active person. When she got her first electric wheelchair she could control on her own when she was seven, she took off with her twin sister on her bicycle and explored for hours.

“Ever since then, I just wanted to go, I wanted to experience everything I can,” she said. “Traveling is the best way to do that for me. You can see so many different people and different things and experiences in life.”

Carpenter was born and grew up in Taylor but now lives in Austin. She has always had a passion for travel and adventure, but she is now currently stuck at home, unable to leave now that her most recent vehicle continuously breaks down.

Right now, Carpenter has a GoFundMe to raise money for a new van because her current van is constantly breaking down. She worked from home up until a couple of months ago when her job was moved back into the office. While she was willing to come into the office to work, she wasn’t able to because of a lack of reliable transportation and she lost her job. In addition, she needs reliable transportation in order to take advantage of a new treatment for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

SMA is a progressive disease, meaning its symptoms get worse as time goes on. However, a new treatment called Spinraza was approved in December 2016 and is able to stop the progression of SMA. Carpenter is eager to try this treatment; however, there are no places in Austin treating adults with the treatment, so she would have to travel to either Houston or San Antonio. Without her own van, this is impossible.

Before her current van, Carpenter had a van that lasted her for years. With that van, she traveled all over the country with friends and family, from California to New York to Disneyland.

However, now Carpenter can’t travel without a van, and she can’t leave her apartment except for medical appointments. She has been at home for about a year.

“It’s really life-changing, not having (a van),” she said. “I’m sitting here going crazy now, not being able to get out and do all fun things I used to do.”

Currently, she just tries to keep herself busy by writing; she is writing a story right now to submit to a writing contest.

“It’s getting pretty boring,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to write about adventures when you’re not having adventures.”

One such adventure she has written about was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Outside Your Comfort Zone about the time she went skydiving in college. One of her neighbors was in the Air Force, and he took Carpenter skydiving.

“I always wanted to do it,” she said. “It’s the thought of life floating and being weightless. I’ve always been fascinated with it.”

Carpenter said it was an amazing experience that changed her perspective on life.

“Having a disability, you run into things all the time you can’t do and people think you can’t do,” she said. “I was graduating college around that time and just you know, felt like the world was my oyster. I thought that was a pretty big statement, to jump out of an airplane when you can’t even walk. It made me realize that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.”

According to Carpenter’s mother, Mary Neighbors, Carpenter has always wanted to do things for herself.

“She’s always wanted to work and earn her way in this world,” Neighbors said. “She has a great work ethic. She would go out of her way to help anyone.”

Once she gets a new van, Carpenter plans to visit her grandmother, who recently moved into a nursing home in Elgin.

“And then, I’m itching for a road trip,” she said. “I want to get out of the apartment and people-watch and experience all those fun interactions with people. I’m going to do the big things, like travel, and do the small things, like go to the grocery store.

As of Sept. 23, Carpenter’s GoFundMe is at $3,825. Her goal is $7,500, which will pay for the van itself. After she buys a van, her insurance will cover the modifications necessary to make it wheelchair-accessible.

“A lot of my friends are donating,” she said. “I had a couple of friends donate $1,000 each. It’s amazing to me, the awesome people I have in my life.”

In the past, Carpenter has worked as an activist, volunteering for organizations that help people with disabilities. She said there is a huge gap in services to assist people with disabilities in the area of transportation.

“When people think of people with disabilities, they think they’re being provided for, and for the most part that’s true … but there aren’t a lot of places that help with transportation,” she said. “I wish more people would see that as a need and try to come up with some kind of solution that would help people like me.”

Community talks challenges for high-speed internet access

The Elgin Courier: September 19, 2018

On Thursday morning, public and private stakeholders from across Bastrop County gathered at the Bastrop Public Library in a discussion about high-speed internet access for rural residents.

The discussion was hosted by nonpartisan policy organization Glasshouse Policy and lead by Texas Senator Kirk Watson and Texas Representative John Cyrier. County Judge Paul Pape and Precinct 2 commissioner Clara Beckett, representatives from the Bastrop Independent School District, members of the public and more weighed in on the issue.

The purpose of the discussion was to gather feedback and look for solutions to providing broadband internet access to people who live in areas where there might not be many options. Broadband internet refers to any high-speed internet access, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet as having a minimum download of 25 megabits per second and a minimum upload speed of 3 megabits per second.

University of Texas professor Sharon Strover, who researches rural broadband services, said people who can’t get affordable high-speed internet access at home often must go to places in town that provide Wi-Fi.

“It hits home, because I live on a ranch in Lockhart,” Cyrier said. “This is the great digital divide.”

Pape recalled the day his family got their first telephone line in 1958, comparing this and the first dial-up connections in the 1990s to the current situation.

“This is not the first time we’ve plowed this type of ground, it’s the same thing we’ve been through before,” Pape said. “Positive things will come out of this as we listen and work together.”

Pape asked for numbers about how many families have no internet access. According to BroadbandNow, 87 percent of Texans have access to wired broadband, while 20 percent of the population is underserved. In addition, 3.3 million Texans have no access to a wired connection capable of broadband download speeds, while 3.9 million Texans have access to only one wired provider and have no options to switch.

However, Sharat Shekar, a resident who lives on FM 535 outside of Cedar Creek, said this data might be underestimating the amount of households underserved. For example, when he tried to get internet service at his house, the FCC website said four internet service providers (ISPs) could provide service at his address, but each ISP could not reach that location for various reasons.

After talking to his neighbors, Shekar found that the entire subdivision was claimed to be serviced by a broadband ISP but could actually not get broadband internet.

“I love that there are incentives that are being provided to like a lot of these ISPs is to get rural America connected to the internet,” he said after the meeting, “but a lot of these ISPs claim to service addresses that they don’t, so they’re actually benefiting from all these incentives when they shouldn’t be.”

Representatives from Bastrop ISD said 25 percent of households enrolling in school do not have broadband internet, according to a survey filled out by parent when registering for school.

The Bastrop ISD representatives said they are currently looking into putting internet access on school buses, allowing students who might not have adequate internet service at home to take advantage of their travel time on the bus.

Watson said specific ideas such as this are necessary in order to build partnerships that will solve these problems. He also said the Texas Legislature is currently preparing to look at issues such as these when the regular session begins in January.

“That’s why we’re here, not to give speeches but to listen to discussion,” Watson said. “Meetings like these are important because it reinforces the need so that we can go and create the arguments.”

ACC, Verizon bring tech to Elgin

The Elgin Courier: August 1, 2018

For many rural students with an interest in technology, hands-on experience and access to equipment can be nearly impossible to come by.

Partnering with the Verizon Innovative Learning program, Austin Community College Elgin is combatting this problem by offering a free summer program for rural middle school girls from the Elgin, Manor and Bastrop areas.

The program is three weeks long with activities all day Monday through Friday. The students spend their time doing team-building activities, listening to speakers, attending classes about technology and working in teams on final projects they present at the end of the program.

One disadvantage rural students face when getting involved with technology is transportation, according to Natalie Almanza, an ACC high school programs enrollment and outreach specialist and one of the co-directors of the ACC Elgin program.

It is often difficult for rural students to get to Austin to experience the resources there, she said, but this program brought some of those experiences closer to them.

In addition, some schools might not have as many new technology resources, such as 3D printers and virtual reality equipment, that let the students get hands-on experience, said Lauren Thomas, another ACC high school programs enrollment and outreach specialist and co-director of the ACC Elgin program.

“As these technologies grow and become a bigger part of everyday lives, it’s really important for all students, and for all girls in particular, to have access to it,” Thomas said.

Laura Siller-Luis, one of the teachers for the program from Pflugerville ISD, said she thinks it’s important to give students who live in different areas and come from different backgrounds an opportunity to work with this technology.

“As girls, these kinds of things used to be targeted mostly at boys traditionally, so now it’s very important that they see it, that they can do it and they see that there’s other women out there (who) accomplish their goals, and they can use them as role models,” Siller-Luis said.

Almanza said the girls in the program have the potential to do things with technology, but they might not yet realize how powerful those skills are.

“They get discouraged (by the technology) a lot, so you have to encourage them a lot, they think it’s too hard for them when it’s really not,” said Dana Whitmire, another Pflugerville ISD teacher who teaches in the program. “Once you get them into it, they seem to enjoy it and they realize they can do it when they think they can’t.”

The summer program wrapped up on Friday, July 27 with a showcase of the students’ final projects, which range from making piggy banks out of empty water bottles to EpiPen watches and drones that alert endangered animals about nearby poachers.

“They’ve done some really great jobs,” Almanza said. “They’re very innovative, they’re thinking outside of the box.”

This is the second year for the Verizon Innovative Learning program for rural girls and the first year that ACC Elgin has participated.

The program is currently funded through next year, and Siller-Luis said she hopes that the program will continue even farther in the future.

“We’re thrilled that this is an opportunity for these girls, and we’re thrilled that it’s out here in the Elgin area,” Thomas said. “It has been a blast.”