Third graders in the Alexandria School District were recently introduced to the world of space, and for this giant leap they each had a partner from the high school.

For once, members of the freshmen class were not the lowest on the high school totem pole. Instead, they welcomed the elementary kids and put their approximately six-year age advantage to good use by serving as mentors in a trio of "missions."

Those missions included: Mission Stars, where students sat in a darkened performing arts center learning about stars and their characteristics in a planetarium-type setting; Mission Planets, where high school science teacher Jen Steidl helped them through exercises explaining the relative size of planets when compared to the sun; and Mission Gravity, another hands-on way to demonstrate how gravity is attractive and pulls atoms together.

The fourth year of this process produced the expected results, said high school science teacher Corey Halstead.

"We always do a survey at the end, and our ninth grade students always say it's nice to make connections with those third-grade students. It helps us bridge those years of learning, which is what we're doing here," he said.

One of the ways they make an instant connection, Halstead said, is by creating their own space helmets in preparation of camp.

The first year was done on a trial basis, with only third grade students from Lincoln Elementary. It went so well that third graders from the district's other four elementaries were roped into the idea for the next year.

"It's a powerful experience we wanted all third and ninth graders to experience," said Haley Kalina, a science instructional coach. She said the goal was to help introduce the joys of science at an early stage, where they can build on that foundation over time. "When we start making connections, we gain a deeper understanding of how science relates to us."

"You have to make memories," Halstead said, "otherwise it's just another day of school."

Teachers said space camp expands students' knowledge of the solar system, and by using the buddy system it gives both the younger and older students a unique perspective.

"It's a win-win for both (groups of) students," said Woodland teacher Kris Kuennen. "It's a great extension for what they're learning in the classroom."

Woodland science teacher Barb Walswick, who with Halstead was in on the ground floor of space camp that first year, said combining the two grades was a natural, since freshmen students have an astronomy unit, and third graders study the sun, moon and stars.

"This gives them an opportunity to experience the high school as well, and they don't always have an academic experience like this," Walswick said of the elementary students, some of whom may have never set foot before in the high school.

The feedback from the ninth graders has also been positive. Surprisingly, being responsible for the third graders can be intimidating for the older students. "You'd think it would be the other way around," she said.

"And it allows some students to see strengths in themselves that they didn't know they had," Walswick continued. The mentoring aspect has even alerted a few to the possibility of a career in education. One senior in an education capstone class told Walswick as much, saying, "I realized then that I love working with kids."