Petaluma middle-schooler sends science experiment into space

13-year-old Emily Bendzick beat out hundreds of students in an inaugural competition to send science experiments to the International Space Station.|

While students at Petaluma’s Kenilworth Junior High School embark on a new year of science classes and experimentation, 13-year-old student Emily Bendzick is returning to the classroom with an unlikely new partner in her biology education – the International Space Station.

Bendzick is one of 21 who edged out hundreds of other students in an inaugural competition to send their science projects into the cosmos on a SpaceX cargo rocket, as part of a wider effort to encourage girls to pursue their studies in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

After learning about the competition last year through her Girl Scouts Troop, Bendzick said she immediately thought of applying her recent coursework in plant biology to a proposed experiment.

“I have an interest in space and I thought that getting to send something through the ISS is an amazing opportunity, even if it didn’t go anywhere, it would be worth it to try,” she said. “My first idea was exposing a plant to space and seeing how it would react, or what parts of it would survive or not survive.”

Bendzick’s proposal, along with input from six other competition winners, formed the backbone for a prototype akin to a small greenhouse, currently suspended nearly 250 miles away in the Earth’s low orbit on the International Space Station.

Over the next six months, Bendzick and her teammates will receive periodic updates on the tomato, pepper and lemongrass plants ensconced in a small growth chamber from the scientists onboard the research center.

“Just being connected in some way with the ISS and being able to send something up is really amazing,” Bendzick said Monday, a few hours before the SpaceX cargo ship docked at the International Space Station.

Made possible through a partnership with the International Space Station National Lab, SpaceKids Global, ProXops and Girl Scouts of Citrus, the “Making Space for Girls” program invites girls in kindergarten through 12th grade to submit essays, artwork or science experiments.

A panel of aerospace professionals judged the submissions last fall, with the small cohort of winners flown out to Florida’s Cape Canaveral last weekend to partake in tours, meet-and-greets and an early-morning observation of the rocket launch.

Bendzick and her mom Kirsten both marveled at the enormity of the Kennedy Space Center where the event was held, and said they were surprised to learn how many people are involved in space research.

The girls were able to learn more about the space station and met with a handful of women scientists and aerospace professionals. On Sunday morning, a few minutes before 3:30 a.m., the winning girls craned their necks skyward to watch as the SpaceX Dragon cargoship launched into space.

For Bendzick, the experience opened her eyes to a whole new way of looking at and interacting with science.

“Being around all the scientists and people who are involved in such big things is really cool, and seeing all these other girls who have all these amazing ideas and talents was also amazing,” she said. “It would be really cool if I could do something like that again, in the future.”

Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.

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