KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “Awesome.” That was the word I heard most often from four eighth-grade girls at St. Peter’s School as they talked about their microgravity experiment that will be conducted on the International Space Station.
“Our experiment is actually going into space!” team member Maureen Egan told me.
Awesome it is to hear girls talk about a science project with the enthusiasm and understanding that these four do. They’re excited that their experiment, “Oxidation in Space,” is the first to win from the state of Missouri as part of Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Mission 5.
The girls, members of Team Defying Microgravity, had to design an experiment that could be done in a Fluid Mixings Enclosure, or FME, a slender 6.7-inch long silicone tube with clamps to keep any solids or liquids separate until the apparatus is aboard the space station.
“These girls had to think inside the tube, instead of outside the box,” said Bob Jacobsen, their science teacher at St. Peter’s, a Catholic school in the heart of Kansas City.
The 15 experiments selected from 1,344 proposals will be ferried to the space station as part of Payload Charlie Brown on the Antares rocket with an Orb-2 Cygnus vehicle. The girls hope to see the rocket’s June 9 launch from Wallops Island, Va. but their latest challenge is finding money for airfare and lodging. (Carol Schweiger Meharry, CEO and president of Schweiger Construction Company, the third-largest woman-owned company in Missouri, has pledged $1,500 to help with the cost, saying she wants to see more women engineers in the future.)
As of Thursday, a Kickstarter campaign had raised a little more than $2,000 of the $10,500 needed to send not just the girls, but also My Ly, the eighth-grade student at Della Lamb Charter School in Kansas City who designed the mission patch for their experiment, and the members of the finalist teams and their chaperones. The campaign’s deadline is April 30.
The idea for the girls’ experiment is a simple design: A two-penny nail was placed in the tube and water will be released onto it once the experiment begins to test the speed at which the nail rusts in microgravity.
Students on earth will conduct the same experiment and compare results with what happens in space.
“It’s funny,” Anna Campbell, one of the team members said. “Our idea was so simple we didn’t think it would get picked.”
But it could have practical applications. “Water floats out everywhere,”said Tone’Nae Bradley-Toomer, another team member, when someone showers or even tries to drink from a container in the space station. What if that water ends up in a vent or even an engine, she asked. Will metal rust in space?
Jacobsen said their experiment had the advantage of providing data that can easily be measured.
Coming up with that seemingly simple idea wasn’t simple, as the girls considered a number of designs. They pursued one but it turned out to be similar to that of another team so they scrambled to change theirs at the last minute.
Jacobsen said he was impressed with how well their team worked together. He had formed four teams by randomly drawing names of the 16 students at St. Peter’s interested in the project. Defying Microgravity was the only all-girl team.
St. Peters joined with four charter schools in the Kansas City Public Schools in the urban core to form the community required to work on the SSEP Mission 5.
SSEP is part of a model initiative for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in grades 5-16 to “inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers” and is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), 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.
The local partnership between a Catholic school and four charter schools is a first for this area and has become part of a larger joint effort known as aSTEAM — which adds the arts to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
That collaboration gave all the students involved opportunities to work with others from diverse backgrounds. “It was really cool to work with the charter schools,” said Zoe Butler, another member of the St. Peter’s team. “It felt like we were breaking boundaries.”
The White House wants more initiatives to encourage girls to enter the STEM fields; according to Department of Commerce figures from 2009, only 24 percent of the nation’s scientists and engineers are women.
Maureen said science was already her favorite subject. Tone’Nae wants to pursue psychiatry or psychology. But Anna and Zoe said writing and language arts had been their favorites — until now.
“This has opened my eyes to all the possibilities,” Zoe said.
The name of the girls’ team is a takeoff from “Defying Gravity” from the Broadway musical “Wicked.” It seems an appropriate choice if you think of the lyrics, which include the line: “My future is unlimited.”