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Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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Student scientists’ project goes to space

LITHIA – They’re just fifth-graders, but their orders will be carried out next month by some of the top researchers on the planet — working off the planet in this case, at the International Space Station.

Three FishHawk Creek Elementary School students will send a science experiment they developed to the space station. There, more than 200 miles from Earth, astronauts will run the experiment to see how the findings in space compare to the findings here.

Fifth-graders Miranda Corbo, Srinidhi Raghavan and Isabelle Utsler started collecting data for their project – which aims to determine the frequency of germination in lettuce seeds – since the beginning of the school year.

Because they are in different classes, the girls met up after school every couple of weeks to plan, run trials and come up with a scientific proposal to submit to a countywide competition.

Their project went through a three-step proposal process ending with a team of national scientists and researchers.

“It was really surprising,” Srinidhi said.

The FishHawk students are the first in Hillsborough County to participate in the Spaceflight Experiments Program, which sends science projects from all over the country to the International Space Station each year. Theirs will be one of 15 projects from schools across the country to be delivered to the space station on a rocket May 6.

The program was first offered in 2010 by the Maryland-based National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks LLC of Houston, which builds materials for space research. The program is meant to inspire future scientists and engineers by giving students across the country a chance to design and propose real experiments to be conducted in space.

“We don’t refer to these students as kids,” said Jeff Goldstein, the center’s director and the creator of the student program. “They are microgravity researchers. They are asked to do everything professional researchers are asked to do. That flight team designed a real experiment, wrote a real proposal, beat out their colleagues, went through a flight safety review and now they are about to launch. It really is a remarkable achievement.”

The girls’ science teacher, Mary Vaughn, shares the program’s goal of inspiring students to pursue careers in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s been amazing to see their growth,” Vaughn said.

Isabelle and Srinidhi are both thinking about becoming astronauts. Miranda says she is considering becoming an actress, with a science-related career as a back-up plan.

On Friday after school, the FishHawk students met in Vaughn’s classroom and gathered around a laptop to meet via video conference with a scientist in Houston, who helped them load their experiment into a tube slightly bigger than a drinking straw.

At the space station, an astronaut will water the seeds to see how many germinate. The students will be alerted so they can water their seeds on earth the same day.

They will receive the results in July, the same month they travel to Washington, D.C., to present their experiment to professional scientists.

The students said they sharpened their research skills working in a group.

“We learned how to work together and share each others’ ideas,” Isabelle said.

They said the experience really has given them a taste of what it’s like to be real scientists.

Said Miranda, “One meeting, we spent the whole time calling ourselves ‘doctor.’”

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO

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