Date: October 8, 2010
Title: Student Experiments Riding Aboard the Shuttle
Podcaster: Bob Hirshon
Organization: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – www.aaas.org
Description: Students have the opportunity to create test-tube sized experiments to fly aboard Space Shuttle Endeavor, as part of an education program created by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (http://ncesse.org/). Bob Hirshon spoke with Center Director Jeff Goldstein about the project.
Bio: Bob Hirshon is Senior Project Director at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and host of the daily radio show and podcast Science Update. Now in its 23rd year, Science Update is heard on over 300 commercial stations nationwide. Hirshon also heads up Kinetic City, including the Peabody Award winning children’s radio drama, McGraw-Hill book series and Codie Award winning website and education program. He oversees the Science NetLinks project for K-12 science teachers, part of the Verizon Foundation Thinkfinity partnership. Hirshon is a Computerworld/ Smithsonian Hero for a New Millennium laureate.
Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by the Education and Outreach team for the MESSENGER mission to planet Mercury. Follow the mission as the spacecraft helps to unlock the secrets of the inner solar system at www.messenger-education.org
Student Experiments Riding Aboard Shuttle
Welcome to the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast. I’m Bob Hirshon, host of the AAAS radio show and podcast Science Update and I’m here today with Jeff Goldstein, who is Center Director for the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. And he’s going to tell us how kids can fly experiments on the space shuttle. So, Jeff, what’s this all about?
Well, it’s called the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, and we launched it in partnership with a company called NanoRacks back in June. And the initiative is kind of blazing a new trail because this is a national science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education program that is being enabled by a commercial opportunity aboard the final scheduled flight of the space shuttle, which is the flight of Endeavor in February of 2011. And the idea is that on this payload, which is enabled through a space act agreement that NanoRacks has with NASA, we’re going to be flying a number of mini-laboratories and one of them, which holds 90 concurrent experiments—about 20 of those experiments are being made available to grades five through twelve across the country.
And so in this mini-lab there’s a significant cancer experiment, there’s a lot of research experiments, there are experiments that colleges and universities are putting aboard for workforce development. But my center is overseeing 20 experiments directly related to grades five through twelve. And the idea is that we put out a call to school systems, school districts across the country, saying that we will reserve an experiment slot for your school district, and the expectation is that you will hold an experiment design competition across your district, so that kids are designing a real experiment to fly in this mini laboratory, and so it’s an opportunity on this historic flight for these kids to fly a real experiment on board the space shuttle.
And when you say a “slot,” what’s a slot?
Well the best way to describe it is that the mini-dispersion apparatus—the mini-lab—has been flying for about 15 years now and it’s a flight-certified laboratory where—it allows small test tubes to be combined at an appropriate time. And so this is not an experiment design competition about building an apparatus. You’re using an existing apparatus. This is really about students designing what they want to put in those test tubes.
I hear a lot from kids who can’t even get started because obviously you have to be excited about what you’re doing to write a good proposal. And they say “I can’t come up with a question; how do I come up with a question?” Often they’re told “just use your imagination—something you’re interested in or excited about.” And they say “I don’t know!” They can’t even get to that point where they can start coming up with ideas and brainstorming. Do you have any suggestions?
Yeah, the way we actually handle that is that we’re giving not only this document which provides an overview of content, you know, the kinds of experiments in microgravity, but there’s something called the “materials samples list,” which is a long list of all the different kinds of fluids and solids from which the students can choose. So, first of all, we did that because these fluids and solids have passed prior flight safety review or are non-toxic to the point where they stand a high probability of passing a flight safety review. And so it serves a couple of useful functions. First of all, it says if you use stuff on this list, which you have to do anyway, we think that you’ll pass a flight safety review.
The second thing it does is it gives kids a starting point, because the samples are listed by category. And so they can research it, they can research those samples and say, oh, gee, why is a planaria worm on this list? How does that relate to microgravity? Or why is food on this list? And in the content document, one example is “Does food spoil differently in microgravity? In the case of yogurt, the bacteria culture that you need for yogurt, does it thrive in microgravity? Cells, the basic building blocks of all organisms here on Earth: do cells function different in microgravity? Do life cycles get altered in microgravity? So all of these different kinds of opportunities lead to countless questions that I think with a good teacher as a facilitator in a classroom, you could bubble up so many different ideas.
Now you said there’s 25,000 students participating?
Yes, there are 16 communities that are participating in this Phase One initiative for the student spaceflight experiments program and it appears right now that that’s equivalent to the opportunity being provided to 25,000 students.
And is it too late to get in on this?
For Phase One it is, because we have just on-boarded the communities, they are working very hard against a deadline where the proposals need to be turned in by November 8th. Because after all, we’re marching against a shuttle flight of February 26, 2011. But this is meant to be a gateway to Phase 2 of the program, which will allow routine access to space for students conducting experiments.
Now given the constraints of the materials they’re allowed to use and the size of the experiment and other things, is it possible they’ll come up with something that’s never been done before? That scientists will be, like, “I never thought of that!” and it’s some unique, maybe publishable result? Or is that unlikely?
You know, why not? That’s the nature of science. You ask a fundamentally good question. And I’m a firm believer that some of the best questions come from kids, because they’re not constrained by some of the world models we adults subscribe to.
So, as a good example, I do this program at the National Air and Space Museum, a family program, and one of the talks I give just concentrates on those very simple, elegant questions that you can ask, like “how far can I see?” Well, I see the trees, but I also see the moon, the sun, the stars, I can see, if I look in the right place, the core of the Andromeda galaxy. I can see really, really far! And that one simple, rather naïve kind of question leads to an elegant understanding of how we fit in a greater universe.
So, why not? Why can’t students across the country pose something that has never yet been done?
Great, so we can follow along on the website and see what they come up with?
Absolutely. And if you forget the web address, just do a Google search for “student spaceflight experiments program.”
Great! Thanks, Jeff. For the 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast, I’m Bob Hirshon.
End of podcast:
365 Days of Astronomy
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