If you had the opportunity to launch something into space, what would it be? For the past nine months, a team of Petaluma High School students has been designing an experiment to test the reproduction rate of algae in a microgravity setting — and it’s about to be launched into outer space.
Probably not what you had in mind, huh? But to the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, or NCESSE, it’s exactly what should be sent into the stratosphere. Algae has the potential to be used as a biofuel, and growing it in space could be essential to the future exploration of deep space, said Linda Judah, a Petaluma High School teacher and project facilitator.
The team of Petaluma High School students — Shelby Metten, Alana Roberts, Lulabel Seitz and Liza Strong, with co-principal investigators Morgan Giraud and Tara Thomas — participated in Mission 7 of the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program. The SSEP is one way the Center encourages science, technology, engineering and math education in classrooms and communities across the nation.
“It was challenging to work on that experiment because the drafting of these experiments was very time consuming,” Seitz said in an email. “We were given time during our science classes, but we all ended up doing most of the work on our own time.”
Just three weeks ago the PHS team put the finishing touches on their design and shipped it off to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to await the launch to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket. A live launch viewing party will be held at Petaluma High School on Sunday morning.
“I am so very proud of what we have accomplished,” Judah said. “Our student team has worked very hard and shown a great deal of maturity, commitment, professionalism and scientific skill. To have done what they have done so far is an amazing feat.”
The challenge of designing the right experiment for a launch lay in the criteria. Students had to design a prototype that would carry small samples of fluids and cause them to mix at an appropriate time in orbit.
There were strict guidelines on the temperature, density, size and content of the fluids and solids, which forced students to imagine the characteristics and processes of physical, chemical and biological systems when released from the influence of gravity.
The experiment will spend several weeks in orbit before returning to Earth in August ready for analysis.
In their proposal summary, the Petaluma team stated their hopes that the experiment “can later be applied to determine the amount of extractable oil yielded from algae samples, and other realistic applications for industrial, cosmetic and supplement use.”
The students receive hands-on experience with a practical science experiment, Judah said.
“Students learn how to work as a team, they learn how to design an experiment, they learn how to work like ‘real’ scientists, with constraints and deadlines and real problems to solve,” she wrote.
Indeed, a key point of the competition was that it provided an authentic scientific setting for students, including the competitive landscape where most science is done.
The program is not cheap. The team needed to raise $23,000 in order to participate. With the help of the NCESSE, the district, and various donors, the price has dropped to approximately $15,000. Petaluma High SSEP is raising funds through the website GoFundMe.com.