Can you compost in space? How do you protect astronauts from ultraviolet rays? And will natural food preservatives work as well for space settlers as they do on Earth?
This semester, hundreds of Northland Preparatory Academy students are finding out what it takes to propose untested ideas and do cutting-edge science in orbit. It’s a competition pitting 100 groups at NPA against each other in a test of real-world science skills.
And one group of sixth- through 12th-grade students will be rewarded with a spot for their experiment on board the International Space Station.
But seventh-grade general science teacher Susan Brown says the lessons stretch far beyond the realm of space science. During research, the students develop critical reading skills and learn to write persuasively while preparing proposals.
“They’re not just learning the scientific method, they’re learning how to write well and communicate,” Brown said. “They’re acting like real scientists because, in fact, one of them is going up to space.”
“There’s a lot of reading and writing that goes into a real-world science career,” said NPA science teacher and competition organizer Kaci Heins. “It’s not just blowing stuff up.”
The project came about after Heins learned of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program from a friend whose class flew an experiment on the Space Shuttle. The program, hosted by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, drew headlines earlier this month with an 11-year-old boy’s plan to send a tiny brewery into space inside one of their 6-inch tubes.
Heins has already played a role in having NPA students speak to astronauts on the ISS via ham radio. And NPA has also sent low-gravity experiments to near-space on high-altitude balloons. But to have astronauts actually carry out a student experiment is truly rare.
The opportunity might not seem out of the ordinary in Flagstaff, the world’s first STEM city (for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). But it is unusual for students in a small-city school to send experiments to space. Most of the participants typically come from places like New York City and Houston.
NPA, like the other schools, had to pay $21,500 to secure just one spot for a tiny tube to be launched alongside others by rocket, transferred into the space station and then implemented by astronauts onboard ISS.
Heins managed to raise half the cash from around Flagstaff thanks to the city’s broad base of STEM support. She said it also helped having Lowell Observatory Director Jeff Hall, who has children at NPA, serve as the project’s codirector.
But as the clock ran down to the deadline, NPA was still about $10,000 short of the needed funds. That’s when W.L. Gore stepped up with the total amount in a STEM grant.
As of this week, the approximately 100 groups of two to five NPA students are about halfway through the process. The final proposal for the six-week space experiment must be in by Nov. 8. In December, the school will then host a STEM celebration day and open their campus to parents and scientists to come and watch students present research posters. A panel of scientists will select the best proposals before sending the finalists on to Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, which will decide which one flies in the NPA spot.
Finally, NASA will approve the safety of each proposal.
Adding an extra challenge at the moment is that the students, like many scientists, don’t see their experiments built unless they win. The lack of prototypes makes the process somewhat abstract.
The small groups work with each other regularly online using Google Docs and other programs, so they must orient themselves with modern workplace realities.
And Brown says the excitement around getting a project they designed into space has added some heated competition among students. She often motivates her students by telling them not to let the underclassmen beat them out. Other teachers in higher grades have done the same, she said.
BRINE SHRIMP AS CANARIES
Many of her students’ proposals involve the use of brine shrimp, a versatile creature that is often the subject of scientific experiments. One idea is to send brine shrimp in a tube to see how they react to ultraviolet radiation — like a canary in an outer space coal mine.
“If we’re going to colonize Mars, maybe they would be a good pet to say ‘maybe our shelter isn’t as good as we think,’” Brown said.
Other ideas involve deterioration of bone density in fish and the resilience of antibiotic resistant bacteria in microgravity.
More than anything else, though, the teacher says her students are learning valuable teamwork and cooperation skills — like how to motivate an uncooperative teammate — even if they never decide to become scientists.
If the competition is as successful as the teachers think it could be and they can again find the funds, Heins hopes to open it up to all Flagstaff-area students next year.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or email@example.com.