International Opinion

To Boldly Go Where Few Students Have Gone Before ...

By Anthony Jackson — October 02, 2013 5 min read
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A global, project-based experiment that’s literally out of this world. Read on!

by Mary E. Courtney

As a child, who among us did not daydream about what it would be like to be on the moon with “no gravity”? We could imagine ourselves bouncing across the moon’s surface in giant, leaping, effortless bounds like a hero astronaut. Then we would ask the inevitable “How much would I weigh on the moon?” Would we eat like some enormous guppy swimming through the air and gulping in food as if it was a giant Tetra Min flake? And so our imaginations were captured about life in “zero gravity.”

Today’s students are no different, except instead of just wondering, they can now tune in via YouTube to astronauts aboard the International Space Station telling and showing how everything happens in space, right down to the most often asked question: How do you go to the bathroom in space? Children, and adults, have a universal fascination with all things space and life in microgravity (a more scientifically accurate term than zero gravity).

Now imagine tapping into that innate curiosity and giving students the chance to actually dig in and explore their questions and curiosity about space. And now imagine doing it with a group of students who tend to be labeled as “poor performing” and “low scoring.” What if they could engage in an open exploration of microgravity, complete with the opportunity to fly their experiment into space and actually get to answer their questions?

This is exactly the opportunity I brought into my urban high school setting through the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). Every student in our school was immersed in an experimental design task centered around the essential question “What physical, chemical or biological system would you like to explore with gravity turned off for 6 weeks?” Egged on by YouTube video of NASA scientists “Johnson-style,” they eagerly dove in to their task.

The program is very well organized providing a framework for student work, and is targeted to students from grade 5 through undergrad. What seemed to be an overwhelming task at first (how in the world do I know what to experiment on? I don’t know anything about this stuff!) became manageable through a scaffolded exploration through nine experiment categories, previous experiments, and lists of suggested materials and organisms to experiment on.

Students worked in teams to prepare research proposals describing their experiments. After student competition, one experiment from our school was selected to fly to the International Space Station. Flight of one experiment is guaranteed through the program since the first step of participation in a mission is securing sponsorship money covering participation costs. Without this funding commitment, your community cannot advance to the next phase. Therefore, by the time you introduce the project to your school community, you can assure your students that, in fact, one of their experiments will be on board the International Space Station.

At this point, our school is at the stage where an experiment has been selected, and the team is preparing the samples to fly during winter 2013-14. Launch is currently scheduled in December, but is, of course, dependent on NASA flight schedules. The projected return is aboard a Russian spacecraft, landing in Kazakhstan to be shipped back to our school for analysis. Our students will then complete their analysis and prepare a report of their findings. The team will be invited to present their research during the summer conference at the Smithsonian Institute in July 2014 if all goes according to the plan.

This is one of those projects that just grabs your attention when you are in a global competence mind set. Investigate the World? Check! Communicate ideas? Check! Consider perspectives? Check! Take Action? Check! We have embraced a project that goes even beyond global applications into space! Astronauts from who knows what country will be interacting with our experiment, and it may even take a detour through Kazakhstan via a Russian spacecraft before returning to us! One of the students said to me at the end of the year before leaving for summer break “I am still trying to wrap my head around this crazy idea we had for an experiment that is actually going to happen. It really is going to be on the Space Station!”. When I saw her later in the summer, she eagerly told me how she had looked up the schedule for flyovers of the International Space Station and had watched it pass overhead a few nights prior to our meeting.

Whether the actual research these girls do will relate in any way to their future endeavors is not nearly as important as the feelings of excitement and motivation for research and exploring a topic of interest that is being fostered in them. I am delighted to watch the four of them huddled together around a lab table, pounding away at an iPad or digging through the science supply catalogue looking for sources of samples. I hear them excitedly talking with each other about these organisms they have chosen to do research on. As I watch this unfold, I am constantly trying to figure out how to bring that same passion to topics I have to teach, knowing that if every student had that same enthusiasm about their daily studies, our schools would be a completely different place.

For more information about participating in a future student mission aboard the International Space Station, go to the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) or “like” SSEP on Facebook. The SSEP is undertaken by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in partnership with Nanoracks, LLC. This on-orbit educational research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

Mary E. Courtney teaches at the Early College International High School in Rochester, New York. Follow this story on the school’s website--and Asia Society on Twitter.

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