Thanks to Toy Story and some pajamas with an out-of-this-world theme, my daughter knew the word alien before she understood what a planet is. There’s something about the idea of little green—or purple or iridescent—extraterrestrial creatures that captures our imaginations at a young age.

Perhaps someday kids can use their imaginations—and tech skills—to help NASA scientists and others find extraterrestrials on other planets, such as the one recently located using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

In April NASA announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, an Earth-sized planet occupying a habitable zone of a distant solar system. The planet is within ideal proximity to the nearest star for liquid water to exist on its surface.

“While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone,” NASA reported, “they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.”

Don’t schedule your SpaceX flight yet. Even the Kepler Space Telescope isn’t powerful enough to discern what lies on this distant planet’s surface. However, the discovery of Kepler-186f is a major step toward finding extraterrestrial life. And kids may some day turn their sights to aliens.

In the meantime, kids can help NASA in other ways.

For example, kids in a program called NASA HUNCH (High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware) build real-world hardware, software, prototypes, and experiments for NASA astronauts and engineers. Scientists from Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and Langley Research Center team with middle and high school students around the United States to work on innovative projects that yield usable, cost-effective equipment.

Since the program launched in 2003, HUNCH participants have produced hundreds of items for NASA. Recent inventions include cargo transfer bags, single-stowage lockers, a European physiology module (payload rack), and a collapsible glove box.

The Challenger Learning Center, a member of the Kids+Creativity Network in Wheeling, West Virginia, provides students in kindergarten through college with hands-on STEM learning experiences tied to space exploration. Aspiring astronauts take mock voyages to Mars or the moon while fellow students learn critical problem-solving skills in the mission control room.

Students from Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg public schools use actual NASA climate data in a science game led by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and other science educators in the area. Participants in the NASA Data in my Field Trip project pore over global satellite data to answer questions and explore themes related to climate change and Earth’s biomes.

The Carnegie Science Center also provides students with hands-on activities and outreach programs that connect science and technology with everyday life. A recent family workshop, for example, involved teaching visitors Bernoulli’s principle (the science behind flight) and then guiding them to build their own rocket.

The hope is that such innovative STEM education initiatives will nurture and inspire the next generation of space explorers. And even if students can’t locate life on other planets yet, they can help build the robots and other tools to help us travel farther into space.

In the meantime, they can start by giving Kepler-186f a cooler name.

Photo/ NASA HQ