Student Spaceflight Experiments Program  

December 17, 2012

Alison Buescher, Science Teacher at Pleasanton Public School, and Lynette Svenson, of Callaway Public School, wanted to inspire their students in science and give them the opportunity to experience science firsthand. When
they received an email invitation to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), they were excited to be able to team up to provide that opportunity and more for their students.

The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), in strategic partnership with NanoRacks, LLC. created a program to be a keystone initiative for U.S. National STEM education and to help inspire and teach America’s next generation of scientists and engineers more about the space program. The SSEP is open to five categories, which include students in grades 5-12, 2-year Community Colleges, 4-year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., Informal
Education or Out-of-School Organizations, and International Communities. There are 24 communities and 9,557 students across the United States and Canada currently participating in the program. Funding of $20,000 was obtained for the Pleasanton and Callaway schools to enroll in the program through grants with the assistance from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in securing significant resources.

Pleasanton and Callaway students have combined into teams, which range from 3-5 people on each team. The teams form one community that is participating in the program. Each student team will be vying to fly an experiment in low Earth orbit in a real research mini-laboratory reserved just for their community. Student teams will propose experiments designed to assess the impact of microgravity (the apparent absence of gravity, also called “weightlessness”) on a physical, chemical, or biological system. Mirroring how professional research is done, student teams will submit formal research proposals, which then go through a 2-step proposal review process to select the flight experiment for the community. Teams are in the process of writing their formal proposals for their experiments now.

On Thursday, November 15, 2012, the students involved in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) had the chance to talk to NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Kevin Ford on the International Space Station. Williams has been involved in activating the latest round of SSEP experiments brought to the station aboard the SpaceX Dragon in October. The NASA inflight downlink was a cooperative effort between the U.S. Department of Education, NASA, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The downlink was established so that students could ask their own questions of the astronauts about living and working in space.

Each student wrote a question to the astronauts and their teachers then picked three questions to send to SSEP program leaders. Program Leaders chose one question from each community and that person had the opportunity to ask their question during the downlink. Mariah Zwiener, Senior at Pleasanton High School, was chosen as the second person in line to read her question from the Pleasanton/Callaway community, “We read that being in space causes the fluid to swell in your brain and increases pressure on your eyes. Could you describe this feeling for us?” Astronaut Kevin Ford responded, “The blood pressure increases in your head and you have some congestion, but your body compensates after you have been in space for a while.”

The live downlink portion lasted about 20 minutes with questions ranging from “What happens if you have a serious medical emergency during your flight?” to “Have you seen anything that surprised or scared you while in space?” The questions and answers were all very interesting and informative. NASA Associate Administrator of Education Leland Melvin; Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller; and National Air and Space Museum Director General J.R. “Jack” Dailey were among guest speakers that addressed the students following the question and answer portion of the program. Taylor Geiser, a junior at Callaway High School, says, “This program has really made us step out of the box and taught us what research is all about. I have learned so much through this program that will I will use throughout my life.”

“The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program provides a unique and engaging opportunity for students to learn science content, inquiry process, and writing skills. For me, the highlight of Pleasanton’s participation in SSEP over the past two years is the student growth. Participants morph from science students to student researchers by the end of the process.”
-Alison Buescher