WELLSVILLE — A trip to Florida planned for sometime in 2018 by six eager Wellsville High School seniors has nothing to do with sunshine and beaches — they will be traveling in the name of science.
The members of Ross Munson’s college-credit biology class hope to witness a thrilling Cape Kennedy rocket launch that will put their science experiment aboard the International Space Station.
A public announcement from the WNY Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) education initiative last week named the Wellsville project as one of 32 experiments in the national Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), Mission 12 to the International Space Station (ISS), and is the second Western New York project to be chosen for the launch.
The experiments are tested on three major criteria: 1) profound, real world implication adding to scientific knowledge, 2) scientific design and feasibility for astronauts to implement instructions, and 3) communication in the written proposal, appropriate format, grammar and punctuation.
A couple of weeks into the 2017-2018 school year, Munson recruited the class to enter an experiment in the competition, which is part of the national STEM education initiative of the National Center for Earth and Space Education (NCESSE).
Munson’s class brainstormed a long list of possible proposals and finally settled on an experiment with planaria that could be conducted in what he termed “challenging design constraints.” It had to be contained in a seven-inch tube with a couple of clamps and no light, and be supported by relevant scientific literature and arguments for choosing the experiment.
The science project, “The Effect of Ascorbic Acid on Planarian Regeneration in Microgravity,” aims to find evidence of the effects of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) on planarian regeneration. Planaria are fresh-water dwelling flatworms about half an inch long and are popular in real-world scientific study for their regenerative abilities.
Research on stem cells shows regeneration can occur in the presence of ascorbic acid but, according to Munson, planaria have not been tested in microgravity conditions. Human adaptation to conditions in space is a currently one focus of the science community.
The seniors spent at least three days a week and several nights in three-hour sessions in the design phase. Munson said the students were diligent and needed little incentive to move the proposal forward, meeting deadlines and working as a team.
After a month of waiting, Wellsville was one of three Western New York teams chosen to be sent on for review by the national judging panel. Olean High School’s “Effect of Microgravity on the Rate of Blood Clot Breakdown,” and Lockport High School’s “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Holistic Antimicrobial Agents Under Microgravity,” were also considered for Round 2.
“We’ve never participated in this program so it was pretty phenomenal that we got past round one,” said Munson, who said the experience has been rewarding for his students, adding, “We spent a lot of time and we accomplished great things.”
But his students aren't resting on their laurels. The win means a few more deadlines and challenges. They are currently running the three-week experiment on the ground, known as a “ground truth testing,” and must verify flight safety, in addition to obtaining NASA approval for the materials, and packaging the experiment for the trip to the launch pad.
The team will travel together to the launch and will participate in a special event at the Smithsonian Institution next summer to showcase and discuss their experiment. The Wellsville school community will also participate in designing patches that will be part of the ISS cargo during the experiment.
“This is a true testimony to the outstanding STEM education taught in our region’s schools,” said Michelle Kavanaugh, president of WNY STEM Hub in a statement Dec. 19. “Substantial sponsorship from 21 regional businesses, and the commitment of dedicated educators make life-changing programs like this possible for today’s students on their way to becoming tomorrow’s innovators.” She said the entrants had to write a proposal and “think like a scientist, doing the work that a scientist does.”
Twenty-one sponsors support the program, including major sponsors, Praxair and National Grid. Dresser-Rand, a Siemens corporation, Cutco, and the Challenger Center are three local Western New York sponsors who selected representatives for the judging teams.
Analysis of the results of the microgravity experiment will continue in the future. The school district is currently renovating a wing of the middle-high school building as its new STEM facility. They have has also hired a STEM coach, Munson said.
There are currently 414 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12.