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Student Scientists Fly Investigations to the Space Station
SSEP students pipetting lysozyme solution for their first ground truth experiment. SSEP students pipetting lysozyme solution for their first ground-truth experiment. (SSEP)
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Students work with lab equipment to load the experiment ground truth unit. Students work with lab equipment to load the experiment ground truth unit. (SSEP)
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When you were in school, chances are your science classes included using a microscope to view cell reproduction or perhaps dissecting a worm or frog. In today's classroom, however, students have the opportunity to take their lessons to a whole new stratosphere. In fact, into orbit aboard the STS-134 shuttle flight on a mission to the International Space Station.

Schools and communities planned their student-run science investigations via the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, or SSEP, which is a partnership between the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, known as NCESSE, and NanoRacks, LLC. In parallel to the real process a scientist goes through, students from the various participating communities researched and submitted proposals to compete for an experiment slot in a research mini-lab that was reserved just for their school district.

Students chose samples from a master list of nine different science disciplines appropriate for microgravity research. They then designed experiments within the constraints of the NanoRacks hardware and the space shuttle, with the help of their community teachers and mentors. The winning investigations launched to the space station as payloads on space shuttle Endeavour. Using standardized parameters, the student-designed investigations fit into the mini-lab aboard the shuttle middeck for the launch.

The goal of the program is to get children interested in science education at an early age, according to Dr. Jeff Goldstein, center director of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. "This is nothing short of providing on orbit research opportunities for grades 5-12. It is not meant to simply be a cool education experience, it truly is meant to immerse students in real science."

A total of 447 proposals came in from teams across participating communities as they vied for a spot on the space shuttle. Student entries went through two review boards before judges narrowed entries to the final selection of 16 winners. This is a record setting number of student participants to work with NanoRacks. Jeff Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, expressed his amazement with the success of the this competition, "The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program has performed a miracle in bringing 16 school districts into STS-134 in just over half a year from contract signing to payload submission. And everyone at NASA has grown to embrace the energy that comes from working with both the program and the schools themselves."

The list below details the winning student investigations and the varied range of topics shows the creativity of the young minds that proposed them. "What's really wonderful is that even a 10-year-old, if you give them the ability to own the gift of a question and help them frame a pathway to an answer through an experiment design, they will really surprise you; they will do remarkable things!" added Goldstein. A second competition is scheduled to launch winners as part of STS-135, targeted for June 2011. This time the competition was open to students from Canada and ranged from 5th grade to students attending two-year community colleges. Despite tough financial times, the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program was still able to assist nine of the 11 finalist communities in this second competition in their efforts to find funding via foundations and philanthropy; the other two were able to supply their own funding.

A community-wide engagement model for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM education, the student program facilitates working with participants in the community-wide design competition. This way opportunities can be shared across the community for education purposes. Dr. Goldstein sees the program as a catalyst for science education on a grand scale. "My hope is that this program will bring high visibility to the space station as a true national laboratory; the only difference being that this laboratory is located in a very strange direction -- up. I think that through this program we can engage truly hundreds of thousands of students in real experiment design and use the station as a showcase."

A sentiment echoed by Manber as he touts the success of the program and his hopes for future student collaborations with NanoRacks. "I am looking forward to helping grow this program onto a truly national and even international level -- it is a wonderful example of the private sector and NASA working together."

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program on-orbit research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks LLC, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

by Jessica Nimon
International Space Station Program Science Office
NASA's Johnson Space Center