International Space Station

Instead of competing for medals, students compete to have their experiments sent to the International Space Station (Image Source: NASA)

This post is the second in a three-part series highlighting youth science competitions that task young people with the real challenges and rewards of a life in research.

We have already discussed the importance of having a competitive edge and drive to create the best solutions to a given problem, but the daily life of a scientist is made up of more than make-or-break moments when your machines or your preparations are put to the test. Once researchers develop the best plan or meaningful expertise, what do they do with it? How does the research process itself actually happen? How can a science competition bring this experience to students?

There are numerous competitions worthy of note, but this series will be highlighting three which bring out a particular set of skills:

  • Competing directly with others as part of a team in a highly specialized field of expertise
  • Competing for access to limited resources to investigate a proposed problem
  • Utilizing modern technology and media to communicate the importance of your results

The second competition highlighted in this series, and the second skill set, embraces that real science is done through formal competition and that great scientists also have to be great communicators: The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP)

Numerous people and organizations are deeply committed to finding ways to help young people experience a science education that more accurately reflects a life in science. For Dr. Jeff Goldstein, Center Director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and Creator of the SSEP, the answer was clear. “Let the students actually do science. Let them see it for themselves.”

In our conversation, Dr. Goldstein emphasized that their goal in forming the program in 2010 was not to create another science competition. “The idea was to create an absolutely authentic and immersive science experience for students.”

What has resulted since is an extensive program involving over 50,000 students competing for the chance to have experiments they have designed and built actually taken to the International Space Station (ISS) and tested.

Three students working on a research plan during the proposal stage of the process (Image Courtesy of the SSEP)

So what does it mean to have students participate in authentic science? It means that they start all the way at the beginning of the science process: writing a proposal. Before any equipment is purchased or experiments set up, there is a critical step in science that is often overlooked by the broader community. But it is this part of the process that makes it possible for any research project to even get off the ground.

A funding organization – such as a government agency, research society, etc – will post a call for proposals. This call will define the scope of the kind of research the organization is interested in supporting, the limits on the research to be done (including timeframe, location, funds, and available materials), and the formal set of requirements for the proposal itself. Researchers then need to create a concise and compelling proposal that defines the work they would like to do, explains how it fits within the scope of the call for proposals, and convinces the reviewers that their project represents the greatest potential investment. And they must do all of this within the strict and formal restrictions for the proposal itself (including word count, number of figures, sections, references, budget, motivations, etc). It is a rigorous exercise in being both accurate and persuasive within a strict written framework.

When Dr. Goldstein started to consider how important this skill was for a researcher, he asked his colleagues about the first time they have ever been asked to write a formal proposal. “Graduate school,” said Dr. Goldstein. “If this is a fundamental skill for anyone who wants to enter the science workforce, then we are producing students who are not workforce ready.”

Team of students collaborating on the draft of their research proposal (Image Courtesy of the SSEP)

So the students, classrooms, and communities who want to respond to this call for proposals have an intense but valuable path ahead of them. For each community that takes part, there will be a mini-laboratory capable of supporting a single microgravity experiment to be transported to the ISS. Because the ISS is in a state of constant freefall, it creates a seemingly weightless microgravity environment inside the spacecraft. Any physical, chemical, or biological systems placed in this this environment will behave as if gravity has been turned off.

SSEP experiment design is therefore driven by a single essential question – what is the role of gravity in in the system under investigation? For a clear comparison of the system to be possible, an identical experiment needs to be conducted under the influence of gravity back on the ground. SSEP provides the curriculum and content resources necessary for teachers and students to develop a foundational understanding of the science conducted in a weightless environment as well as experimental design.

Enabling this foundation ensures that the participating groups have a sufficient understanding to design and build a meaningful microgravity experiment. If they want to write a competitive proposal for an experiment to be conducted in microgravity, they need to not only understand what it is, but also what materials and phenomena might be affected by such an environment and are thus worth testing and comparing to the same experiment conducted on Earth.

The students know that each spacecraft has a limited amount of available space to transport experiments. Rather than competing for a prize or a medal, they are competing for a very tangible resource.

Students preparing lettuce seeds to test protocols for assessing the effects of microgravity on germination (Image Courtesy of the SSEP)

With that knowledge, groups of students work together to create and submit their formal proposals. The potential experiments are truly interdisciplinary – ranging from crystal growth to microaquatic life – with students proposing any work that they feel would be informative and important to test in microgravity. These proposals are first assessed by a board of reviewers within their community. Those with the highest scores from each community are then sent on to a national committee of scientific experts. When the final selection is made, the students behind the selected proposals build the experiments in preparation for their launch date.

“It was important to us that this was a community endeavour,” said Dr. Goldstein. “Even though only a single experiment from each community can be selected, the entire community ends up rallying behind that experiment and the students behind it.” The teachers, the students, and the whole community are getting to be a part of the proposal and selection process. Not just one kid. Not just one classroom. This collective and competitive pursuit of new knowledge is a critical part of that immersive and authentic experience the program seeks to create.

The selected experiments are also required to go through a formal flight safety review, to ensure that they would be able to safely make the journey to and from the ISS without creating potential issues for the astronauts, their equipment, or the experiments themselves.

But the authenticity hardly stops there. The most recent group of students, those selected for launch with Mission 6, received an unexpected glimpse into another aspect of real research. The rocket carrying the student experiments experienced an anomaly during ascent, and all of the experiments were lost. Months of effort and preparation from hundreds of people were instantly derailed.

Students checking the mass of samples while in the process of designing their experiment (Image Courtesy of SSEP)

As any scientist who has even held her breath while waiting for a rocket to launch, a lander to land, a laser to fire, or an accelerator to run can tell you – the risk of some outside factor bringing your months or years of work to a sudden end is a very real and defining factor in what they do. You have to be willing to take that risk. And more importantly, you have to be able to bounce back if things don’t turn out the way that you expected.

For the students of Mission 6 there was a fortunate, if stressful, turn of events. NASA and NanoRacks pushed to make it possible for the student experiments to be included on the next flight on the SpaceX CRS-5. These groups then had to scramble, with the assistance of their communities, to recreate the work of months under an extremely tight deadline. What was at stake wasn’t an award, but the chance to answer the questions they had posed in their proposals so many months before.

11th grade student asking questions to Station Commander Sunita Williams and astronaut Kevin Ford during a live video conference with the International Space Station in 2012 (image Courtesy of the SSEP)

After the experiments return to Earth, the students will have a chance to process and interpret their data and present it in a formal research symposium: a powerpoint presentation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum with all of their research peers. When considering the value of having young students present in such a forum, Dr. Goldstein once again asked his colleagues about the first time they had been tasked to give a formal research presentation. Again the answer was graduate school.

“I think far too often that we don’t give students enough credit,” Dr. Goldstein said. “We put students and teachers in a little box and we take away the opportunities and the rewards for actually exploring genuine curiosity.” Taking away one piece of that box has led to more than 10,000 proposals, 11 missions, and a lot of new perspectives on what it means to teach and participate in STEM. With the next launch coming up in June, we can watch first hand as a new set of communities takes back ownership of their own STEM learning and takes the chance to take part in an authentic science experience.