Elementary-school kids put their ideas into orbit

All the students in the school were involved in some part of theproject.

Do you know any scientists who have done experiments in space? Actually, there may be some in your neighborhood or even in your school. Students from kindergarten through college have been involved in projects on the space shuttle. They don't get to ride in the shuttle themselves, but they do get to send up experiments that ride in the shuttles' cargo bays.

Many shuttles carry special canisters. These barrel-shaped canisters, (about 2-1/2 feet high and 1-1/2 feet across) hold experiments by schools or other groups that want to test something in a space environment. Universities often put experiments in these canisters, but high schools and even elementary schools can also join in.

Students at St. Vincent de Paul School in Salt Lake City, Utah, had a chance to conduct such an experiment last summer. They worked with Utah State University students and advisers to include their project in the University's canister on the shuttle Discovery in June 1998. The students sent popcorn and radish seeds into space to see how they would be affected. The popcorn was exposed to space, then brought back to earth to be popped and studied.

Long before the shuttle launch, the students began planning and designing their experiment. All the students in the school, from kindergarten through eighth grade, were involved in some part of the project.

The students learned about conditions in space. They also studied the things they would send into space. What makes popcorn pop? What makes seeds grow? Before they ever sent their experiment into space, the students discussed what might happen, based on what they had learned. They planned how they would determine if the popcorn and seeds had been affected by their exposure in space. To do this, they would need to compare the popcorn sent into space with popcorn that stayed on earth.

Students placed their project in the canister and watched as the shuttle roared into space on June 2, 1998. By the time the shuttle returned, the students were on summer vacation, so the canister wasn't opened until October.

Then students began to make their comparisons. Did exposure to space result in more unpopped kernels or fewer of them? Did it change the taste, texture, or size of the popped corn? Do radish seeds grow better, worse, or the same after being exposed to cosmic radiation? Students are still testing, making comparisons, and writing up the results of their experiment.

Thousands of students have been involved in experiments on the space shuttle.

Many, like the students at St. Vincent, receive help from a college or university that makes room for the student experiment alongside their own projects. In 1995, a new program was funded, the Space Experiment Module (SEM) carrier system. It allows a number of student experiments to be included in a special canister on each shuttle flight, without paying the high cost of other experiments. Student experiments ride for free.

Ruthan Lewis is program consultant for SEM at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It's exciting to see the growing interest in student projects and their involvement in the space program," Dr. Lewis says. Some schools are now creating a curriculum around a shuttle experiment. Each canister holds as many as 10 projects, and can involve as many as 2,000 students.

On the first flight of the SEM system in November 1996, Albion Junior High School in Strongsville, Ohio, studied how copper heats, using a stack of pennies. Hampton Elementary School in Lutherville, Md., worked with Glenbrook North High School and Purdue University to study the effect of space flight on such things as seeds, soil, chalk, peanut butter, magnets, and Silly Putty.

WHEN astronaut John Glenn returned to space last October, his shuttle also carried chewing gum, bubble wrap, paper clips, stickers, erasers, and crayons in a project for Dowell Elementary School in Marietta, Ga. It also carried a joint project from Montello High School in Montello, Wis., and Istituto Technico Commerciale Riccatl in Treviso, Italy. Students from these two schools joined together to conduct an experiment with lettuce and cicoria seeds. They will compare data on their results over the Internet.

These experiments help students learn how to do scientific studies in space. They can also be important to the space program and to people on earth. Seed and plant studies give useful information for growing food on the coming space station or improving seed production on earth.

High school students at the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southern Idaho placed phosphate fertilizer in a canister to learn if it dissolves more easily in lower gravity. This could help improve how fertilizer is made or how plants on the space station will be grown. Other projects have studied tool design, mold growth, crystals, egg development, magnetic fields, computer chips, and brine shrimp.

The next three scheduled shuttle flights (two in May and one in August) will carry student projects. And in the future, who knows? One day a shuttle may carry your research into space.

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