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GRCC students fall short in NASA HUNCH competition, but their signatures are headed to space

May 22, 2023, GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Grand Rapids Community College students fell just shy in getting their meal or edible packaging blasted into space, but their signatures will soon be orbiting the Earth on the International Space Station.

Two teams of GRCC students were finalists in the NASA HUNCH competition, presenting a meal and a plan for edible packaging to astronauts and other judges at the Johnson Space Center in Houston last month.

The GRCC projects were not selected as winners, but Dr. Werner Absenger, the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education's program director, said. "The GRCC students, who developed meal and packaging ideas explicitly for space travel, being selected as finalists by the NASA HUNCH program, is a tremendous validation of their work's merit, during which they gained valuable insights, interdisciplinary research, and collaboration skills across culinary, environmental, and space industries."

Absenger said the four students - along other NASA HUNCH teams -- were asked to sign their names and the name of the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education on a stowage locker that will be placed aboard the space station.

“How cool is that?" Absenger said, who served as a coach of the GRCC Raider Fuel teams, along with Chef Jennifer Struik, a GRCC instructor.

Culinary students Katie Bird and Devon Vanderwall participated through a partnership with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District’s Careerline Tech Center. They were one of nine schools competing as finalists, and presented a recipe for Austrian style steak soup following strict dietary guidelines. 

Bird and Devon Vanderwall prepared their dish for judges including Jessica Watkins, the fifth Black woman to travel into space, and the first to join a space station expedition. She recently completed a six-month stay on the space station.

Biomedical science engineering students Abby Tichelaar and Cole Herring, competed through a partnership with the Kent Intermediate School District’s Launch U program. They devised a plan for edible cargo transfer boxes that hold nutrition bars, and at the end of their life cycle could be upcycled into an edible solution, such as gummy bears, recycled, or downcycled into plastic components.

Tichelaar and Herring pitched their plan to experts including astronaut Victor J. Glover. He recently served as pilot and second-in-command on the Crew-1 SpaceX Crew Dragon, named Resilience, and served as flight engineer on the International Space Station for Expedition 64.

Students learned about the variety of careers within the culinary world, and how they drew upon skills from other subjects to create their meal and packaging plans.