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Students Win Siemens Award for Space Station Experiment
12.19.06
A team of high school students won $10,000 in scholarships at the Siemens National Competition in Math, Science and Technology for their work on an International Space Station experiment. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings helped present the awards at New York University on Dec. 4.

Catherine McCarthy, Lauren Berger, Rochelle Rucker and Lily Roberts of Hathaway Brown School in Ohio collaborated with NASA Glenn Research Center research engineers Kim de Groh and Bruce Banks on the Polymer Erosion and Contamination Experiment (PEACE). It was mounted outside the space station as part of the Materials International Space Station Experiment 2 (MISSE 2) from Aug. 2001 to Aug. 2005.

Photo of students with postersImage right: McCarthy(left), Rucker and Roberts (right) stand beside their project poster at the Siemens National Competition. Credit: Kim de Groh

The experiment subjected 41 polymers -- materials often used on spacecraft -- to low Earth orbit to see how they stand up to atomic oxygen, or oxygen broken into individual atoms by the sun's radiation. This was the widest variety of polymers ever exposed to identical low Earth orbit conditions for a long period of time. The team's findings will help engineers select materials for future spacecraft.

McCarthy, Roberts and Rucker wrote a 20-page research paper on the experiment and entered it in the Siemens competition earlier this year. Only three members are allowed per team, so Berger voluntarily stepped down.

Of the 1,660 students who entered, only 345 went on to compete in six regional finals. The Hathaway Brown team won the Midwest Regional Competition at the University of Notre Dame, earning $6,000 in scholarships and additional prizes. The win also secured them a place among 20 finalists who competed in December at the Siemens National Competition, the country's most prestigious math, science and technology contest for high school students.

Photo of experiment on space stationImage right: This photo of MISSE 2 was taken by the crew of space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-112 mission in 2002. The PEACE samples are in the top left corner. Credit: NASA

After giving a 12-minute presentation, at the National Competition, the students defended their paper to a panel of esteemed judges led by former astronaut Kathryn Thornton.

"It was a very intelligent and prestigious crowd," said team leader Catherine McCarthy. "We presented our research to Nobel Laureates and professors from Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The judges really combed through our paper and asked us hard questions," she added. "It was intense, but it was a very good experience."

In addition to the $16,000 in scholarships, the Hathaway Brown team also won $4,000 for their school to support math, science and technology programs. In total, the team won over $20,000 in scholarships and awards.

Photo of team in cleanroomImage left: De Groh shows McCarthy and Roberts the samples during post-flight inspection of the experiment in NASA Langley's cleanroom. Credit: Patty Hunt, Hathaway Brown.

"They did a truly excellent and very professional job presenting their research," said de Groh, the NASA materials research engineer who mentored the team. "We were all beaming. Their parents, their teacher...and I was an extremely proud mentor."

Banks and de Groh are using the data from the polymer experiment to develop a handbook and a predictive tool. Engineers will be able to use the predictive tool to determine how long new materials that haven't been tested in space will withstand the degrading effects of atomic oxygen.

Meanwhile, McCarthy, Rucker, Roberts and Berger are helping NASA Glenn fabricate samples for another materials experiment scheduled to arrive at the space station in late 2007. Three of them will graduate this spring and begin college already equipped with very impressive resumes.

In Depth:
+ More About PEACE
+ PEACE Samples Return
+ Siemens National Finals Webcast
Jan Wittry (SGT, Inc.)
NASA's Glenn Research Center