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Students' Microgravity Experiments Find Way to Station
KSC Director Bob Cabana, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and students Image above: Bob Cabana, NASA Kennedy Space Center, and Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, talk with students about experiments flying on the COTS Demonstration mission.
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NASA’s commitment to fostering student retention and achievement in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics areas of study is long-standing.

Known as the STEM disciplines, NASA relies on breakthroughs in these fields to advance the technology needed for space exploration. Building a robust cadre of scientists and engineers for the future is a high priority for NASA.

Since its inception in June 2010, the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has capitalized on NASA's science and exploration missions to encourage students to pursue a STEM-centric school curriculum.

SSEP gives 300 to 1,000 students across a community the opportunity to propose and design real microgravity experiments to fly in low Earth orbit.

The first two SSEP payloads flew in 2011 aboard space shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis on the STS-134 and STS-135 missions, respectively. A third round of experiments now has made its way to the International Space Station.

A suite of 15 SSEP experiments were aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule when it docked with the station on May 25 and will be the first to be conducted in orbit by space station astronauts.

Known collectively as Aquarius, the experiments will assess the effects of microgravity on physical, chemical and biological systems. The students have been immersed in every facet of research, from definition of the investigation to experiment design, proposal writing and a formal NASA proposal review for selection of flight experiments.

As an added incentive to consider technical careers, the student investigators were treated like their adult counterparts and were invited to view the Dragon launch from the NASA’s News Center at Kennedy Space Center, not far from where their experiments lifted off into space on neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Student investigators on three of the experiments made themselves available for interviews before the Dragon’s first launch attempt on May 19.

Tenth-grader Ryan Puri from San Marino High School in San Marino, Calif., was enthusiastic about his participation developing the entry "Effect of Microgravity on the Antibacterial Resistance of P. aeruginosa."

"It was actually a really professional experience," Puri said. "I was really surprised to see that it was really much like an actual research program where you actually feel like a real scientist."

For guidance on handling the bacteria and antibiotics involved in the experiment, he and his team members visited a laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where they "got to put on lab coats, and our goggles and gloves and everything and really got to use all these machines." Puri assessed the experience: "It was really fun!"

Co-investigators Jack Barth, JP Peerbolte and Cameron Zandstra, all seventh- and eighth-graders from Highland Christian School in Lake County, Ind., were excited to be at Kennedy representing their entry, "The Effect of Microgravity on the Quality and Nutritional Value of the Seed Sprout of a Germinated 92M72 Genetically-Modified Soy Bean."

"This is, like, super-great," Zandstra said. "It's, like, one of the best things to happen to me . . . so far."

"Just to see how doors have opened for us just by writing this paper," Barth added, "and especially in our first year of trying this program."

Peerbolte spoke for the team when he said, "It's amazing to see our soybeans on top of a rocket going to space to the International Space Station and microgravity."

Emily Soice, an eighth-grader at Johnston Middle School in Houston, was principal investigator for her community’s entry, "Hepatocyte Development in Bioscaffolds infused with TGFB3 in Microgravity."

Soice was aware of the historical significance of the Dragon flight and said she was feeling "very excited and honored that I get to be a part of the first commercial payload. It’s a very cool experience."

Puri echoed her sentiment: "I think it's really an incredible experience, to be part of the next step in space exploration history." The SSEP also takes the opportunity to inspire students’ artistic side through a competition to design a mission patch to accompany their community’s experiments into space.

The winning elementary patch for Charles County Public Schools in Maryland was designed by Lauren O’Neil, a fifth-grader at Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School in Charles County, Md.

O’Neil also agreed to be interviewed as any novice artist would.

"My science teacher, Mrs. Krebeck, told us about the competition and asked us if we wanted to participate," Lauren reported. "My brother Hayden has a lot of books about space so I looked through them for inspiration."

Once she had completed her research, she chose her medium -- markers. Tucked in the lower left-hand corner is a slogan near and dear to the hearts of space enthusiasts everywhere: "The sky’s not the limit."

The students especially were thrilled to receive a visit from a couple of real-life astronauts who stopped by the News Center to offer them some words of encouragement and a special thank-you for their hard work. Those astronauts sometimes are better known for the positions they now hold within NASA -- Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.

Kay Grinter,
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center