AURORA, Colo. — On Thursday nights, when school is out and kids have been sent home, there is a small group of students who meet at Grandview High School in Aurora to cook.
"The idea of being able to combine cooking and then science, which is one of my favorite things, and also space, which is really cool -- it's just cool," said Luna Nelson, an 11th grader from Eaglecrest High School.
To see teenagers cooking is impressive on its own, but students like Nelson aren't just learning to cook. They're perfecting a meal that could go into orbit.
"You cannot find this anywhere else. No other club offers what this club offers," said 16-year-old Jacob Riede.
The program is called HUNCH, shot for "High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware." NASA provides materials, equipment and mentoring to each of the HUNCH teams across the country.
Students then present their projects during a HUNCH Ceremon, when some projects are selected to be used in NASA systems and onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
If their dish wins at the competition, NASA will send it into space for astronauts at ISS to eat.
"I guess it was just kind of cool thinking about how we could cook the food for astronauts up in space, send it up there and give them something to enjoy," said 14-year-old Jayden Perkins, a ninth-grader who also attends Eaglecrest High.
This is Perkins' first year in the HUNCH program, but like every other student here, he's learned a lot in a short amount of time.
"The nutritional facts are definitely one of the most important things because in space they need those nutritional values," said Riede.
This is also Riede's first year in the program. Each student is required to learn a lot about space and what astronauts need in orbit before they start cooking.
"We’ve definitely done lots of research to make sure our meals correlate for what they need in space," said Riede.
All that research is led by Mary Anderson, a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) teacher at Eastridge Elementary. Anderson has been running the HUNCH program for four years in the Cherry Creek School District.
"I think that the most special part about this program is the fact that they have access to the NASA program," said Anderson. "That they actually have access to astronauts and space travel."
Anderson will be the first to say the program itself is amazing. But she talks even more about how blown away she is by the students in HUNCH.
"I have a very eclectic group of students here," Anderson said, smiling at each of them. "I would say the number one reason that they're all here is curiosity. We're fostering that curiosity in order to create the next generation of innovators."
Every year, Anderson looks forward to seeing what unlikely characters the program will attract.
"These are not kids who are focused on science programs only or math programs only," she said. "It’s available to anybody who wants to participate."
The community that forms each year is special to Anderson and each of the HUNCH students who decide to join.
"There are many evenings that I’ve just had to walk into the pantry because I’m shedding a tear. They’re just so great together," Anderson said of her students.
The HUNCH team competes Wednesday, Feb. 12, against other Colorado HUNCH teams. The top 10 teams from around the country will get to visit the NASA Space Center in Houston later this year to compete against each other. The best dish will board the ISS to be enjoyed by astronauts in space.
"NASA's trusting us to make food for them," said 16-year-old Nelson. "It's kind of amazing."
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