Mention the annual science fair to many students, and just watch as their eyes glaze over.
Chris Dunning, principal of Pasco County’s Krinn Technical High School, wanted something bigger and better for his students. So for his school’s second year of operation, he gave them a “real goal” — a chance to get a science project on the International Space Station.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Dunning said. “It changes up the typical science fair.”
More than half the kids on campus took up the challenge. They turn in their proposals today.
“Not a lot of people get to say they have the opportunity to possibly send their experiment to space,” said senior Amanda Marrero.
“It’s really just crazy how much you can learn at a school like this,” added senior Shelly Nonnenberg, one of Marrero’s project partners.
Working in small groups, the teens spent their first quarter devising experiments they could conduct in their classrooms at the same time that astronauts do the same thing in space. The differing variable would be gravity.
They researched ideas that haven’t been explored by others, and that would have significance for future generations. They had to write up every aspect of their plan in painstaking detail, so an International Space Station denizen wouldn’t have to guess what steps to take.
And they had to think small.
Their entire project had to fit in a Type 3 Mini-Lab, a a flexible white silicone tube that fits in the palm of your hand. For even that size experiment, the school has raised $25,000.
It’s not cheap to get work onto the space mission.
That prompted the student teams to get creative.
Marrero, Nonnenberg and partner Emily Null focused on testing whether antibiotics that combat the MRSA bacteria on earth will have the same effects on a related non-pathogenic bacteria in space.
Freshmen Shiana McGuire, Emily Coleman, Joshua Mark and Paul Archer looked into whether yeast fermentation yields the same amount of carbon dioxide when gravity is decreased.
Junior Bianca Aguilar and senior Cierra Villegas want to study whether the tolerance of soybeans to herbicides changes when outside the atmosphere.
The goal of these and the many other ideas is to discover whether they could help humans survive on other places in the galaxy.
“Soybeans are a source of nutrition,” Aguilar said, to explain the rationale of her group’s project. “So if we have to move to the moon, or Mars, if we’re able to grow it and the gene stays the same, it will help us.”
And despite competing for what ultimately will be a single spot, which isn’t even guaranteed for their school to win, the students also worked collaboratively among groups. They helped identify potential flaws, and discovered ideas from others that they could incorporate themselves.
“It’s like a family at this school,” Villegas said.
“We’re in it together,” Aguilar added.
Chemistry teacher Darynn Magee said the students had really taken to the challenge, even beyond the science. They also worked closely with language arts teachers who helped them with the academic and scientific writing associated with preparing the proposals that judges will review.
Magee stressed that the students who don’t win the competition still have science to conduct. They will still do the half of the experiment that wasn’t to occur on the space station.
And that was just fine for the participants. Just knowing they had the chance to do something bigger proved enough of an incentive.
“Competing for other science fair competitions is just to go to state,” said senior Kenneth Wood, whose team wants to study the speed at which mold grows on wheat. “In this, you’re competing to go into space.”
“The science fair, oh my goodness, is something we did not like,” added senior Yazmene Canty, whose group looked at the decomposition properties of honey mushrooms. “But this, we like.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at email@example.com.