Feature

Students Go for Launch
09.05.07
A group of high school students from Wendover, Utah, is learning that life presents more opportunities than any of them ever thought possible. The students are members of the NASA Club at Wendover High School, a NASA Explorer Schools team since 2004. The NES project and the NASA Club have opened many doors for Wendover students, including seeing science experiments they designed launch into space on rockets.

A group of students and teachers
The city of Wendover is on the Utah-Nevada border, 150 miles from any major city. Wendover teacher and NASA Club sponsor Carolyn Bushman said students seldom travel outside of the Wendover city boundaries other than to shop in Salt Lake City or to visit families in Mexico.

Image to right: Teachers and students from Wendover High School's NASA Club include (front row, from left) students Madison, Maria, Julia, Anne and teacher Carolyn Bushman, and (back row) teacher Rusty Northrup and students Ashton, Rafael, Korbin and Manuel. Credit: Wendover High School

So traveling to Virginia and New Mexico to see suborbital rockets launch has engaged Wendover students in opportunities that were not available to them before the partnership with NASA. For the last three years, students from Wendover have designed experiments that have flown on space-bound rockets.

Their third experiment launched on April 28, 2007, from the White Sands Test Facility in White Sands, N.M. The experiment was one of nine NASA Explorer Schools experiments selected by LaunchQuest, a program providing middle and high school students the opportunity to send research experiments into space. LaunchQuest is sponsored by the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc. and the National Aerospace Leadership Initiative.

The experiments launched on a suborbital SpaceLoft XL rocket by UP Aerospace, a Connecticut-based company specializing in low-cost space access. Among other payloads, the rocket carried the ashes of U.S. astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, known for his role as Scotty in "Star Trek."

The Wendover students' experiment tested the effect of launch and microgravity on the strength of magnets. Students wanted to know whether or not magnets lose or gain strength after being subjected to solar radiation and the stresses and conditions of launch. In their project proposal, students stated, "Magnetic strength can be affected by high temperatures, exposure to other magnetic fields, and by impacts -- and a trip into the extreme conditions of space, not to mention the launch itself, can alter these factors."

Sean, a sophomore, and George, a junior, came up with the idea to test three types of magnets: bar magnets, toy construction magnets and cow magnets, which are very strong magnets swallowed by cows to prevent accidentally ingested metal pieces from injuring their stomachs. The bar magnets were too large for the experiment container used for the launch, so only the cow magnets and the toy magnets were launched. Students tested the magnetic strength of 18 magnets -- six of each type -- at school and sent three of the cow magnets and three of the toy magnets up on the rocket.

Two students sit at desks trying to move a paperclip on top of a stack of white paper with a red bar magnet underneath the stack
To test the magnets' strength, students placed a metal paper clip on top of a stack of paper, placed a magnet underneath the paper and observed if the magnet was able to move the paper clip. "If the paper clip moved, then we placed more paper on the stack," Sean said. "If the paper clip did not react, we took papers off. The club members did this until it neutralized, and we counted how many sheets of paper. We did the experiment three times for each magnet and then averaged the paper counts."

Image to left: Manuel and Rafael test the strength of a bar magnet using a stack of paper and a paperclip. Credit: Wendover High School

The club hypothesized that the magnets would weaken because of the stresses of launch, being pulled from Earth's magnetic field, and microgravity. Sean, however, said he thought the magnets would be stronger after the launch because the cooler air in the Earth's upper atmosphere would condense the strength of the magnets, making them stronger.

Students tested the magnets after the flight and found different results for each type of magnet. All magnets -- those that were launched and those that were not -- were weaker. With the cow magnets, the control group lost more magnetic ability than the flown magnets. "This is mind-boggling to us because the cow magnets that were flown were dented, and we expected that this would weaken them," Bushman said.

With the toy magnets, students found just the opposite. The flown toy magnets were weakened approximately twice as much as the control group.

The students concluded that the toy magnets may have weakened more than the cow magnets because the design and purpose of each type of magnet may impact their effectiveness.

A rocket launches in the desert
In 2007, NASA Explorer Schools experiments were launched at NASA's White Sands Test Facility.

The first two years, however, Wendover students traveled to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore to watch the launches. Experiments there were launched on board NASA's Orion sounding rocket. According to Bushman, several students said after those first two launches that they wanted to work for NASA someday. "This is huge, because in Wendover we have just a few professional examples, and most students' big dream is to work in the (Nevada) casinos," Bushman said. "Getting the students ... to see other options really opened the window for them to dream bigger."

Image to right: The SpaceLoft XL rocket launched on April 28, 2007, from NASA's White Sands Test Facility in White Sands, N.M. Credit: Bill Zeller

The first year, Wendover sent two experiments: a live plant, to see if the plant would grow differently after launching into space; and small bouncy balls, to see if they would bounce higher and faster. The impact of spaceflight on plants is frequently tested by flying seeds. However, Bushman's student insisted on flying a live plant.

"The student felt that she wanted a live plant flown, so we watered the plant well and sealed the box up," Bushman said. "Well, when we opened the experiment up (after the flight), the moisture had caused everything to mold, including the seeds we sent up. The bouncing balls still bounced the same."

The second year they sent up flexible and nonflexible digital thermometers to see if the devices would read body temperatures the same after being launched into space. The results were inconclusive, Bushman said. "Some of the thermometers read our temperature two degrees higher, and some read it two degrees lower. But these findings were not the same for each person, so we still do not totally understand if our body temperature was different or if the thermometer had been changed by the flight."

Bushman said the biggest impact of the launch projects has not been the science of the experiment but rather engaging students in a project that shows them new possibilities for their futures. "They learn that they can accomplish any dream if they work hard," she said. "One of the students wrote that she thought NASA was just for the wealthy, but that she now understands that NASA is for everyone and that she can work for them someday.

A girl experimenting with three silver cow magnets
"Another student was struggling in school. He wanted to drop out. I convinced him to get involved in NASA Club and attend the second Wallops trip. On the trip, he suddenly said, 'I should be an engineer someday!' He is still in school and went on the New Mexico trip. He still talks about becoming an engineer. I feel that as long as we encourage him that someday he will be an engineer because of these experiences."

Image to left: Julia tests cow magnets used in the NASA Club experiment. Credit: Wendover High School

NASA Club member Rafael said the launch projects showed him that you do not have to come from a big city to be able to do big things. "I can do anything, even though I come from a small town," the eighth-grader said.

The launch at White Sands was the first launch experience for Julia, a Wendover junior. "I had never seen a rocket be launched before, so I thought it was pretty cool," she said. "... Being a NASA Explorer School is very awesome because it gives the students some big opportunities to see and learn different things."

Most students said they enjoyed the launch and playing in the white sand dunes the most. But junior student Manuel said what he liked best was the lecture at New Mexico University by UP Aerospace co-founder Eric Knight. "He told us how he started his company and got suggestions of how to make the business better from us students," Manuel said. "The physics instructor told us that he had some papers that we could fill out if we were interested in becoming an engineer. I was particularly interested in those papers because I hope to become an engineer one day."

Bushman said the NASA Explorer Schools partnership has impacted students' lives by demonstrating how the impossible can become possible with hard work. "I know the students who have gone on the three trips with me will go on to college and become professionals because of their experiences," she said. "I never would have dreamed that in three short years we would have accomplished what we have. I'm a much better teacher because of the experiences that I've had."

Related Resources
+ LaunchQuest

+ UP Aerospace

+ NASA Wallops Flight Facility

+ NASA Education Web Site

+ NASA Explorer Schools
Bushman recently received two prestigious awards for her dedication as a teacher. She was named Teacher of the Year for 2007 by the Utah Air Force Association's Northern Utah Chapter, "for demonstrated excellence in education, in the spirit of Christa McAuliffe, and in recognition of sustained, outstanding performance as an educator and unequalled dedication to ensuring that America's students are prepared for aerospace technological challenges of the future." McAuliffe was a high school teacher who was selected to fly on the shuttle through NASA's Teacher in Space program. She was a payload specialist on the STS-51L mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which was lost shortly after launch in January 1986.

The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution honored Bushman with The Mary Smith Lockwood Founders' Medal For Education. "This was the first Founders' Medal to ever be given in Utah," Bushman said. "It was presented to me April 28, 2007. I was in New Mexico with the students for the New Mexico launch, so my sister and my parents accepted it for me. I had to decide about being there or taking the students. My choice was to take the students."

Through the NASA Explorer Schools project, NASA enters partnerships with selected schools to bring engaging science, technology, engineering and mathematics learning to educators, students and families. A competitive application process and selection of new NES teams occur each spring. With this project, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. NES is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services