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Students Blaze a Trail Using NanoRacks-CubeLabs for Space Station Research
Students at Valley Christian High School work with a mentor construct their NanoRacks CubeLabs hardware. Students at Valley Christian High School (left to right: Michael Lee, Veronica Lane, and Taehyun Park) work with mentor George Sousa to construct their NanoRacks-CubeLabs hardware. (Credit: Valley Christian High School) A good education is the launch pad that enables students to shoot for the stars with their future goals. They work their way up by preparing in grade school for college, which leads to their subsequent career of choice. Students at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California, however, are not waiting for the university setting for ignition on their dreams. Instead they are seizing the opportunity to embrace math and science education via the school's Applied Math Science and Engineering Institute, AMSE for short.

Students participating in AMSE conceptualized, designed, built, tested, and are now flying an experiment on the International Space Station as part of Expedition 25/26. The AMSE advisory board collaborated with NanoRacks, a private company that provides research opportunities on the space station through the International Space Station National Laboratory. Together they enabled Valley Christian High School students to be the first high school to take part in space station research using NanoRacks-CubeLabs.

Valley Christian students underwent a rigorous application process to qualify to participate in this exciting chance for hands-on microgravity science and engineering. The final project team includes 24 students guided by Dan Saldana, a retired satellite design engineer. The team chose a plant growth experiment for their focus. This experiment uses a student-designed, self-contained plant-seed growth chamber that plugs into the NanoRacks-CubeLabs platform onboard the station. An internal camera provides snapshots of the stages of growth during the experiment, which crewmembers then downlink to the school as data for analysis.

Students gained real world experience by planning, working, and seeing a project like this through to launch. They designed hardware and worked within specific parameters for safety, weight, etc. This included researching which plants would likely work best in the microgravity environment, given the 4 by 4 by 8-inch size of the NanoRack-CubeLabs unit. The plants had to be small enough to avoid outgrowing the growth chamber, while sturdy enough to survive limited irrigation and flight duration. William Kohlmoos, CubeLab Design Engineering Manager and student, recalls the selection process, "The payload group chose three plants: basil, marigold, and Wisconsin fast plant. The reason we picked these was because they were an appropriate decision based on the time we were allotted, which was 30 to 60 days."

The students plan to make a video documentary of their efforts, as well as maintain a Web site and blog. The AMSE Institute also hopes to hold a CubeLab Education Conference in 2011 to raise awareness of such opportunities for other schools. Veronica Lane, CubeLab Program Manager and Project Manager of Robotics and Senior at Valley Christian, comments on the range of influence hoped for in this project, "The mission of [this study] is to research, design and fabricate a plant growth experiment that will grow aboard the international space station. We also want to help other schools do a similar experiment and grow our own Applied Math Science and Engineering Institute."

The goal of this project is for students to learn to balance school commitments, along with a successful space station project. Benefits include engineering experience, project management skills, science education growth, applied research, and technology studies. The inspirational act of conducting a hands-on space station experiment is the fuel that will ultimately fire these students imaginations and lead them on an already bright trajectory towards careers in math and science.
by Jessica Nimon
NASA's Johnson Space Center
International Space Station Program Science Office