Designing a national challenge to inspire transformational STEM learning experiences

How CTE Mission: CubeSat brought space missions to high schools.


Many 21st-century jobs don’t exist yet. Students need hands-on, multidisciplinary learning experiences to help them gain important skills for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. But teachers may not feel confident bringing new topics and emerging technologies to classrooms if they don’t have expertise.


Investors predict that space will be the next trillion-dollar industry, and realizing that vision will require a skilled workforce at NASA and beyond. Introducing students to related skills and projects can help fill future talent pipelines and open pathways to rewarding careers in aerospace and other critical industries — including cybersecurity, infrastructure, and climate technology.


Luminary Labs designed and produced CTE Mission: CubeSat, a national Ed Prizes challenge to build technical skills for careers in space and beyond. The multiphase U.S. Department of Education challenge invited high schools to design, build, and launch small satellite prototypes.

We began by speaking with teachers and other education stakeholders, employers, and aerospace experts. With their input, along with an in-depth review of literature and existing CubeSat education programs, we produced an environmental analysis report. We used this analysis to produce stimuli for two “meetings of the minds,” which convened stakeholders and experts from organizations such as Google, NearSpace Launch, Brooke Owens Fellowship, Thomas Jefferson High School, and University of Michigan to pressure-test assumptions and refine the problem statement as part of the challenge design process. We used these inputs to develop a detailed challenge design, then iterated several times based on changing needs and conditions.

We launched Phase 1 in August 2020 with a nationwide outreach campaign, inviting eligible schools to develop and submit proposals for CubeSat missions. To help teams develop submissions, we created an online hub with curated educational resources and hosted virtual sessions with experts from academia, government, and industry — including CubeSat inventor Bob Twiggs and leaders from Blue Origin, SpaceX, NASA, FAA, and USGS. Career and technical education (CTE) teachers led teams from 22 states to complete mission proposals.

In December, the challenge announced five finalists. During Phase 2, which began in January, finalists had access to mentors and additional virtual resources as they built prototypes and planned flight events. We worked with donors at Arduino, Blue Origin, Chevron, EnduroSat, LEGO Education,, MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, and XinaBox to secure $5,000 and in-kind prizes — including development kits and expert mentorship — for each finalist team. This support helped level the playing field for schools that didn’t have experience with CubeSats, local expertise in aerospace engineering, or budgets for project supplies.

All five finalist teams launched their CubeSat prototypes during Flight Week in April. Upon submitting their flight reports in May, the teams completed the final phase of CTE Mission: CubeSat. We concluded our engagement with a final report and a video with highlights from Flight Week.

The finalist teams’ missions helped students develop stronger research, technical, communication, and collaboration skills — which can translate to careers in any industry. Teachers who supported finalist teams say they plan to continue student-led CubeSat projects and incorporate similar hands-on learning in future CTE classes. Some teams are also planning to iterate on their prototypes and seek opportunities for flying their experiments to space.

Read more about CTE Mission: CubeSat and learn more about our ED ARPA work, which includes annual challenges that will advance CTE by engaging students, teachers, and administrators.