When you went to see movies in the eighth grade, what did it inspire you to do? Buy a floor-length leather duster? Develop false expectations about Saturday detention? Write a manifesto about how your possessions really owned you? For three young women in Buffalo, a trip to the movies ultimately led to meeting an astronaut in the nation’s capital and sending an experiment into space.

Gabriella Melendez, Shaniylah Welch, and Toriana Cornwell of Hamlin Park School 74 in Buffalo have had a busy year. Like many students around the country, they took part in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program with the eventual hope of sending a winning experiment to the International Space Station. The program is sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. Though all three young women acknowledged that the opportunity had been a long shot, they clearly had been motivated by the challenges rather than discouraged by them.

Miss Cornwell said that when her science teacher had initially encouraged her to take part in the competition, he said that that it was going to be both a lot of work and a rewarding experience. Miss Cornwell often looks for opportunities to read and work beyond the scope of her school assignments (which can become “not very interesting” at times), and thought that this would be an interesting challenge. Her science teacher had been right, and the work was hard, but the three finalists were not discouraged. Even when other students began to drop out of the program in their school, the three young women formed a new alliance that would allow them to stay in the competition as a team.

When I asked Miss Welch what motivated her to stay involved when so many of her peers had decided to stop, she answered quite simply, “I love science.” To her, clearly, no further explanation was necessary. Miss Cornwell agreed, and instead of being discouraged by the other students leaving chose to see it as even more motivation to succeed.

Support for the competition in the Buffalo Niagara region came from WNY STEM Hub and its partners. The thousands of dollars raised by these groups made it possible for teams in the region to compete for one of the spots going to the space station. (Credit: Theresa Kennedy, Communications Director, The Office of Congressman Brian Higgins)

The competition workload is demanding, including an extensive and well-researched proposal far longer than any typical 7th or 8th grade assignment. Teams are challenged to come up with an original research question that could be tested with an experiment on the Internal Space Station. Any seasoned researcher will tell you that coming up with a good question – and a viable way to test it – is one of the hardest parts of the scientific process.

With the whole world of possible questions before them, the three finalists found inspiration in an unexpected place: the movie theater. Miss Melendez explained that they wanted to ask something that would be able to help humans survive when exploring in space. After seeing The Martian and watching Matt Damon’s character have to grow potatoes on Mars in an attempt to survive, inspiration struck. For Miss Melendez – the lead investigator on the team -  it went from the natural curiosity of wondering whether such a thing would work to, “Oh! We should try to test that!”

Once they had their big question – is it even possible to grow potatoes to sustain you away from Earth – the competitors started the long process of transforming a big idea into a detailed and well-supported proposal more than fourteen pages long. They worked for multiple hours each day after school, learning about microgravity, potatoes, soil, and the NanoRacks tools that would house their proposed experiment (NanoRacks and NASA are both partners with the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education).

All of the finalists identified writing and revising the 14-page proposal as the most challenging aspect of the competition. Interestingly, they also identified it as one of the most rewarding. Miss Cornwell said that they had all felt accomplished after finishing the initial draft of the proposal, and were a bit overwhelmed when they received feedback requesting that they further refine their experimental design.

Each step of added research and each new trial experiment seemed at first like they might not be inherently interesting, but “even learning how to experiment on potatoes is interesting and fun, in the end,” said Miss Cornwell. For Miss Welch, the writing and revision process was one of the greatest academic challenges she had faced, but instead of intimidating her, she said “it propelled me to want to do something more.”

The three winners celebrating in front of the White House on their trip to Washington DC (Credit: Ina Ferguson, Buffalo Schools Parent Facilitator and WNY STEM Liaison)

Once their experiment had been selected as a winner, the competitors had the added opportunity to travel to Washington DC to hear the State of STEM Address, meet national politicians, and attend a panel of scientific experts. When the time came for questions, Miss Melendez stepped up and asked the astronaut on the panel whether – in their expert opinions – potatoes would have a chance of growing in space. The answer? Probably.

Even though their experiment was already slated for a trip to the space station, Miss Melendez had access to an astronaut and was not going to waste the opportunity. She was proud that they had come up with a good experiment, but she also had a more practical motivation for posing the question at that time – “another step, another piece of information.”

Now the finalists have entered the nerve-wracking stage of waiting for launch. Some of the past winners have had to face the intimidating reality before all space science researchers – that the rocket could fail and never make it to the Space Station. The young investigators are both nervous and excited for their scheduled launch, hoping it will go smoothly and holding their breath for the eventual outcome of their experiment.

A moment of Buffalo pride in the capital: The winners with Megan Smith - Chief Technology Officer for the White House and graduate of Buffalo Public Schools (Credit: Ina Ferguson, Buffalo Schools Parent Facilitator and WNY STEM Liaison)

The three young women shared their advice for other students interested in the SSEP competition. Though they phrased their precise advice differently, the sentiment was the same: It is going to be a lot of work, but you should never give up. It will be hard, but nothing is too hard if you are willing to keep trying. Remember to have fun, even when the work is hard, and everything is possible.

“We are making history,” said Miss Welch. I thought she meant by learning about potatoes in space, but she went on to clarify that her sentiment referred to something more tangible. “When people look up our school, when kids want to see what the students at 74 are up to, this is what they will see. They will see that people at our school are winning things and getting recognized for good reasons. By working and winning this, we are making history.”

I, personally, will be quite excited to see what history these three young women will make next.

Credit: Ina Ferguson, Buffalo Schools Parent Facilitator and WNY STEM Liaison