Students’ Research Takes Flight—Into Outer SpaceJuly 30, 2019
On a hot July day on Florida’s Space Coast, my colleague Sara Enser and I sat with Sole Witt and Alejandro Arrigo, students from Buffalo’s International Preparatory School, at the Kennedy Space Center. Images surrounded us in the warehouse-like room as we watched a short film introducing visitors to the space shuttle. At the end, as the projected images faded, the screen lifted, revealing the retired Atlantis shuttle that carried the Hubble telescope into space.
Sole’s jaw dropped. “Wait—is that real?” asked Alejandro with amazement.
Yes, Alejandro, it’s real. Real science, real experience, real authentic, and real space. And especially real learning.
As teachers, it is our responsibility not just to educate academically. We bear responsibility for the social, emotional and physical well being of all our students. I believe the best way to address all of these aspects of the individual is to provide experiences that nurture the mind, body and soul.
Enter the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), the unique learning opportunity that brought our group to Florida. SSEP is a proposal-writing competition run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Students design and document an experiment to be carried out in a 12-by-½ inch tube in microgravity. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) carry out the winning experiments using the specifications in the students’ proposals. The winning teams prepare their tubes (one for the ISS, a second that remains on earth as a baseline); attend the launch of the shuttle carrying their experiments; present their experiments at the Kennedy Space Center; and eventually present their findings at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
As I write this, the experiment created by the “Sporeos” from International Prep has docked with the International Space Station via the SpaceX Dragon capsule propelled by a Falcon 9 rocket.
Space odyssey, part 1: The Spudlaunchers
My involvement with SSEP began in 2015. It was my first full year in Buffalo Public Schools as a co-teacher at Hamlin Park Academy. Working in the afterschool program, I was constantly looking for fun and engaging ways to extend learning and encourage academic achievement during the school day by improving reading and writing abilities.
When SSEP appeared on my radar via WNY STEM Hub, a group that promotes science and math learning opportunities in western New York state, I jumped at the chance. Our resources were limited; I planned to run the program like a writing course. Jokingly, I told the students that if we were to win, I would take the students to Disney World when we went to see the launch.
Little did I know that was a promise I would have to keep.
We started with 17 students. After spending two hours a day in a dark computer lab after school for two and a half months, three students and three finished proposals remained. The three students teamed up and we chose the proposal that seemed the most feasible. Gabriella, Shaniylah and Toriana became the Spudlaunchers.
We didn’t know it, but our lives were about to change dramatically.
The announcement that they had won was a shock. Not because we believed that they couldn’t win. Winning was never really my focus. Completing a real scientific proposal is rewarding in itself. This was a regional competition where many bright and clever students put forth their best ideas. We knew the competition was daunting. And, as the team lead has said in the years since, she didn’t expect to win—after all, their project was “just potatoes.”
She was wrong.
The Spudlaunchers proposed sending potatoes to the ISS to see how spending time in a microgravity environment would affect their growth on Earth. Gabriella, who authored the original proposal, was inspired by “The Martian,” a movie in which Matt Damon plays a scientist who is stranded on Mars and survives by growing potatoes. The science was sound and the presentation of the information was relatable.
The idea to send the spuds into space and then grow them on Earth to simulate travel to another planet was really special. So special, in fact, that no one had ever done it before. I don’t mean students who had competed in SSEP. I mean no one in the history of space travel. In the research, we had found plenty of people who germinated in space, who even grew potatoes in space, but the Spudlaunchers took it a step further. The implications of their research relate directly to the future of interplanetary colonization.
Instantly, these three girls became the darlings of Buffalo Public Schools. They learned so much more than just how to read and write a proposal. They learned how to communicate their science in a relatable way. They did interviews for radio, TV and print. They gave speeches to groups of peers and went to movie showings of Hidden Figures hosted by the mayor of Buffalo. They met the mayor, congressional representatives, school board members and the superintendent.
After almost six months of delay, the launch occurred on February 19, 2017. The delays were a great lesson on how real science works. Ultimately, SpaceX has a responsibility to not blow up spacecraft. In 2016, the previous winners’ experiment was supposed to go into space; the launch was scrubbed with five seconds left in the countdown. We were advised to go on with our plans.
On our way to Universal Studios the next morning, our driver, who had worked at NASA, turned on the radio and pulled over to the side of the road. As we looked into the distance, he turned up the bass on the radio. We could feel the thrusters as their rocket, carrying a 12-inch tube of potatoes, cast off its earthly coil. It was surreal, but it happened.
Space odyssey, part two: The Sporeos
In the fall of 2019, I began teaching at my new school, International Preparatory. Fresh off my Milken Educator Award, the National Association of Special Education Teachers Outstanding Teacher Award and WNY STEM Hub’s teacher leader award, I was excited to start my third round of advising SSEP with a whole new crop of students.
Mission 13 was hands down the best presentation of the material. I taught with creativity and passion. I had the evidence from the previous team (pictures, interviews, and their final presentation). We started with 25 students. Again, after an intense two and a half months, we saw some attrition, but 14 students and two completed proposals remained (plus a third proposal which will be submitted next year).
Halfway through the writing process, it was clear that one group had something special. They caught the eye of Buffalo State and started working with biologist Dr. Derek Beahm to refine their science. I helped them develop their idea and make the science relatable.
The four team members, Joy Elaine, Joanne (Alex), Sole and Alejandro, proposed sending bacteria to the ISS, feeding it to promote growth and then introducing a fixative to kill and stop the growth later. The bacteria that they were advised to use, Bacillus subtilis, goes into a hibernation state when there is a lack of food. It transforms into spores through a process called sporification. The team is exploring whether microgravity has any effect on the growth curve of this bacteria.
Fittingly, a colleague dubbed this team the “Sporeos.”
I really expected winning SSEP to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Again, our students are more than capable, but it is a big competition with many smart advisers and students.
But the selection process felt different this time. There was an added confidence because of the extra work that these students had put in and how refined and scientifically sound their proposal was. They were named one of the three finalists. When we announced their victory at school in front of their peers, the auditorium erupted in cheers.
The Sporeos have been celebrated by the media, met hordes of dignitaries, and presented their proposal at Buffalo State. But what excites and inspires them is the authentic nature of this project. They went to the lab at Buffalo State to load their experimental tube on the day after school ended. They wore lab coats, worked under a hood, used a micropipette, and Skyped with NanoRacks, a company that works in privatized handling of payloads to space, both on the ISS and with satellite deployment.
The Sporeos find their voices in Florida
Like the Spudlaunchers, we took the Sporeos to Florida to try to see the launch. And like the first trip, the launch was delayed. Where it is a disappointment, the learning experience is often more rewarding. And this trip for the Sporeos was certainly that.
On our first day the students chose to go to the dinosaur museum in Cocoa Beach. We worked on their public speaking as they identified rocks they had learned about in Earth Science. The two students who made the trip (the others couldn’t join us because of a last-minute conflict) are soft-spoken and timid when it comes to talking about what they know.
Over the course of this trip, we made videos where Sole and Alejandro had to talk about things that they were confident about. It started in that museum with those rocks and carried throughout the trip. These are students who are asked to repeat themselves on a regular basis because they talk so quietly. But in Florida, as they walked behind us on our last day, we could hear their entire conversation through bouts of laughter. Authentic experience yields success.
The learning continued as they visited the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. We showed them pelicans, turtle nests, and crabs peeking out of holes in the sand. We ate fresh seafood and took the students to the surf shop Ron Jon (where Alejandro bought a shirt to look more local). We saw cruise liners leaving port. It looked like a vacation, but we continued to emphasize that if this is what you want from your life, it is attainable.
On the second day we were supposed to go to the Kennedy Space Center, but because of the launch delay we headed to the Magic Kingdom. We continued to teach the students about Disney and emphasized learning in the Hall of Presidents, the Carousel of Progress and the Disney business model.
At the Kennedy Space Center, the students learned about rockets, capsules, the privatization of space travel—and, most important, that this burgeoning field offers real career possibilities. In the afternoon, they did a board presentation. Anyone from the general public could ask them questions about their project. Sole and Alejandro, both admitted introverts, boldly addressed any museum goers with the who, what and why of their project. Standing in the shadow of the Atlantis shuttle, they seemed like different people. The visitors, intrigued and sometimes astounded, giggled at the surreal nature of talking to teenagers who are doing real scientific research with the International Space Station.
The final day was a marathon of Animal Kingdom and Epcot. We rode as many rides as we could, saw as many things as we could, and did it right. We talked about wildlife and conservation. We talked about technology and innovation, and how they work hand in hand. Sole and Alejandro were smiling, laughing and loving life. They even found their (Mickey Mouse) ears.
At the end of the day, on the way out of Epcot, we had time for one more ride before we had to head to the airport. At the beginning of Spaceship Earth (the famous ride in the Epcot “golf ball”), Dame Judi Dench says:
Like a grand and miraculous spaceship, our planet has sailed through the universe of time; and for a brief moment we have been among its passengers. But where are we going? And what kind of future will we discover there? Surprisingly, the answers lie in our past. Since the dawn of recorded history, we’ve been inventing the future one step at a time. So let’s travel back in time together....
It was a fitting end to this trip, as these were the first words I had uttered at the introduction to Mission 13.
These are the kinds of experiences I’m looking to build for all my students. This trip was the culmination of a lot of planning, fundraising, student research and writing, but it is merely a pause in the project, not a finality. Next year, these students will use what they learned in Florida, along with the results of their experiment, and present at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
I have two hopes for the future. First, to secure more regular sponsorship at International Preparatory so that we can reach more students with these kinds of experiences. And second, that this experience inspires another winner when we begin Mission 14. Welcome to the International Preparatory Space Program.
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