Joanne Abadie grinned at the thought her grade-school science project might be performed by astronauts in space.
"I would be super excited," said the fifth-grader at Kingswood Elementary School. "I'm going to take this project seriously."
Fifth-graders at Kingswood and students at 11 other Hillsborough County schools are competing to see who gets to send their science project to the International Space Station, where it will be conducted — step by step — by astronauts.
Scott Coonfare, a fifth-grade teacher at Kingswood, heard about the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program and pitched it to the Hillsborough County School District. The project got the green light and the necessary funding — $19,500 from the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union Foundation and $2,000 from the Florida Space Grant Consortium at the University of Central Florida.
Over the next few weeks, students at Kingswood, as well as Gibsonton, Reddick, Sheehy, Frost, FishHawk Creek, Philip Shore, Lomax, Morgan Woods, Kenly, McKitrick and Mango elementary schools, will brainstorm in teams to create a science experiment that can work in zero gravity. Each school will name a winning team. The school district narrows the field to three and the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education picks the winner.
Mary Tlachac, a Suncoast foundation spokeswoman, said the group is thrilled to get behind this project. Suncoast wants to support endeavors that revolve around area children and education.
"We felt this was the perfect fit," she said.
Coonfare called it an amazing opportunity for students, saying one team will have its project conducted at the International Space Station.
"It's unbelievable," he said.
Coonfare, who co-teaches with his wife, Dana, said zero-gravity science projects are new territory for them and students. So, he said, he is excited but a little anxious.
"It is wonderful and very intimidating," he said. "It's outside our comfort zone."
Gabe Gabrielle, an engineer at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east coast, visited Kingswood last week to kick off the science fair competition and to offer words of encouragement.
While he has never gone into space, Gabrielle still managed to dazzle the students with his job behind the scenes and his knowledge of the space industry. He had no trouble keeping the attention of the 100 students crammed into the school's cafeteria. The fifth-graders especially liked his slide show. They pointed, clapped and laughed as they watched video of astronauts and everyday objects, such as a razor, float inside the space shuttles.
Gabrielle also shared that math and science are important subjects, even in elementary school. He urged the students to study, saying Americans must keep pace with other technologically advanced countries. He also had a message for the girls: The space industry isn't just for guys.
"There are many, many opportunities in the space program," he said.
Kaylee Lopresto, 10, knows that girls can excel in math and science. Last year, she snagged first-place honors in the fourth-grade science fair at Kingswood. And, she said, she is looking to repeat. Still, she said, she enjoyed hearing Gabrielle's encouraging words directed at the girls.
"It makes me feel good," she said. "Girls can do anything that boys can do."
Emil Acevedo, 10, is nervous about the science project, saying he does not have an idea. But, after listening to Gabrielle and watching the slide show on space shuttles and astronauts, he is certain about one thing: "I want to be a space man."
Monica Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.