ECISD students working toward getting experiments in orbit

October 21, 2017
Odessa American 

Eight campuses — Gonzales Elementary School, Crockett, Bonham and Bowie middle schools, George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa, Permian High School, Falcon Early College High School, Odessa High School and OCTECHS — will participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program Mission 12 to the International Space Station.

The district was one of 31 communities in the United States, Canada and Brazil accepted into America’s Spaceflight Program. Ector County Independent School District students at eight campuses are working on proposals and designs for microgravity experiments to fly in low-Earth orbit.

At Falcon Early College High School on the University of Texas of the Permian Basin campus, AVID Coordinator and PICK Education ambassador Elizabeth Gray has a group of about 15 students — from freshmen through juniors — who meet after school to discuss ideas for experiments to send into space.

About 10 youngsters were gathered around a table on a recent Thursday in a portable building for that purpose. Sending seeds, caterpillars and bees were among the possibilities talked about.

Gray said the group doesn’t have an idea quite yet, but now that they know the specifics of how it needs to be sent up there and what they can send, they can narrow it down.

“It’s absolutely once in a lifetime,” Gray said. “I wish this was around back when I was a kid. I so would have been part of it. It’s amazing. Some of these kids would never venture into this type of field unless they were exposed to it now.”

Because Falcon ECHS is a small campus, many of the students know each other, but they might not hang out together, she said. However, they all seemed to share a love of science and space.

Sixteen-year-old sophomore Damien Galindo said he likes learning about gravity and is interested to find out about the effect of weightlessness on plants and other items.

He said he thinks the chances of Falcon’s experiment being chosen are high because they have a lot of people at the campus who think outside the box.

Juan Mendoza, a 15-year-old sophomore, said space has always been “cool” to him. He added that he’s always idolized astronauts and likes the idea of having a connection to them.

Fellow sophomore, 15-year-old Deidre Morales, said she has been fascinated by science since she was young.

“I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to develop and test my science skills. It’s been amazing being able to collaborate with my classmates on such an important topic. It has been a great experience,” Morales said.

Odessa High School Project Lead the Way teacher Adolfo Zubia drew his 20 aerospace engineering class students into the project. Zubia said he jumped at the chance to work on a proposal and design.

“… It fits well with this class,” Zubia said.

He added that it’s an opportunity that many students probably wouldn’t get.

“It heavily relies on STEM, which is science, technology engineering and mathematics. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students,” Zubia said.

“The way it works is they have to put together a proposal first, which is what they’re working on now. The proposal is to outline the experimental design. It’s going to also explain the constraints of the design and it’s going to detail the equipment used by the design and the equipment used by the astronaut aboard the ISS,” Zubia said.

“It also includes background information on the chosen scientific question to be answered,” he added.

Once the proposal chosen, students have to perform the experiment and get it ready for the International Space Station.

Zubia split his students into four groups of five that have been working on it for about a month.

What he said he’s noticed from students is the process of running an experiment in space is confusing and exciting. They have a lot of questions on what they can and cannot do.

“It’s a great way to engage all students, and at the same time, explore different questions not just one overall question,” Zubia said. “They all know that only one’s going to get chosen, so there’s a competitive nature to it.”

Matthew Camarena, a 16-year-old junior said his group would like to see decomposition of an animal carcass studied in space to see how it does in microgravity. He added that the idea came through brainstorming and it was something that they hadn’t heard of being studied before.

“I think if we do our work and if we work hard, I think we can go pretty far in this,” Camarena said. He added that this is an “amazing opportunity” that can go on their resumes.

Cesar Anguiano, a 16-year-old junior, said his group had a variety of ideas, but will probably go back to the first one which was to see whether plants on Earth or space — with zero gravity — grow faster. He envisions a vegetable being tested for this.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Anguiano said.

He added that he thinks it would be “cool” to put this on a college application and maybe even a job application.

Seventeen-year-old seniors David Taft and Luis Galarza were in a group considering corrosive agents to send up in space. However, there are many that can’t go.

They both said they wouldn’t expect a chance like this to be available in Odessa.

“It’s just exciting for anybody, like actual astronauts, might take your stuff up there to space,” Galarza said.

ECISD Chief Innovation Officer Jason Osborne said a proposal had to be submitted with certain requirements like how students would be involved in the scientific and artistic aspects of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Each community also will have the opportunity to fly two Mission Patches to the International Space Station.

In November, a committee of primarily local scientists will select three student spaceflight proposals to be submitted to a national selection committee assembled by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. NCESSE will select one flight experiment proposal to be sent to the International Space Station in 2018 where an astronaut will conduct the experiment.

After a typically four-to-six-week stay in orbit, the experiment will be returned to Earth for harvesting and analysis by the school’s student flight team.

Deadline for the proposals to be submitted to the district is Nov. 3.

The selection will be made at a summer 2018 conference hosted by the NCESSE and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Osborne said representatives from NASA will be there.

Just like Ector County ISD’s Pick Education program, Osborne said this gives students access to real-world problem solving and being a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

“They come up with their own experiment design, either as individuals or as groups, and they will be judged by community members, so we’ll be seeking out folks from places like OC, Texas Tech and UTPB to do some of the judging on the scientific aspect of their projects,” Osborne said.

“There is a huge chance that these projects could be significant enough that it spins out more research projects, which is very interesting. I talked to Dr. (Michael) Zavada (dean of the College of Arts and Sciences) at UTPB. He has some ideas and he has opened his doors to teachers that want to talk with him about some ideas for experimental design,” Osborne added.

On the artistic aspect, Osborne said there will be two patches.

“We actually had to send a proposal in for two patch designs. One patch design would be a competition with elementary-level students and the other patch design will be secondary students,” he said.

The designs will be judged by art teachers and then community members will conduct the final judging, Osborne said.

Osborne said the proposals have to meet NASA requirements, the same as those coming from a scientific institute.

“So this is the real deal. You have to go through the right protocols to shoot anything up into space,” he added. “It’s about $15,000 a pound to shoot something into space. The cost and everything that is behind is significant.”

Osborne said the project has garnered $24,000 in support with $8,000 from the Texas Space Grant Consortium, $9,500 from Chevron and $6,500 from the Education Foundation.

He said he spoke to National Center for Earth and Space Science Education Director Jeff Goldstein on the phone about the process. Osborne said he knows Goldstein because they used to be on the same speaking circuits.

“We had a lot of people in our district who were part of that proposal process, so a lot of gratitude goes to our Curriculum and Instruction folks that contributed to the proposal, as well as individual campuses that contributed to the proposal. That included a lot of the principals in our district,” Osborne said.

“… It was a huge team project,” he added.

Osborne said the opportunity is important for a district like ECISD where students may not have ever left Odessa or the state of Texas.

“Changing the perception of this district is absolutely crucial and opportunities like this will help change that perception. When you see kids being involved in international competitions, as well as opportunities to work on world-class research with world-class researchers, if you can change the perception and you make the learning space more exciting for kids as well as the teaching space more exciting for teachers, you’re going to change the dynamics. You’re going to change the culture. Opportunities like this help change that culture in the classroom,” Osborne said.

He added that he hopes it has the effect of changing the culture of the community and prompts community engagement.

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