Our school’s spaceflight experiment program

 Miguel Rico, Wilson Ho, Michael Lu, Maddie Elder and Dr. Jane BattRow 1: Catherine Vlasov, Alice Vlasov, Annabel Gravely, Amy Freeman, Kay Wu  Row 2: Miguel Rico, Wilson Ho, Michael Lu, Maddie Elder and Dr. Jane Batt

I want to share the story of our project to highlight the benefits and obstacles of space research with your school community. In August 2016 our high school community had their winning microgravity experiment performed on the International Space Station (ISS). This two-year initiative (SSEP) was organized at The University of Toronto Schools (UTS) in Toronto. It was a problem–based learning opportunity and engaged most of the school community. Before you read this article, check out the UTS initiative’s website. Here you can see our project video capturing the students’ excitement and the ambitious nature of their community’s endeavour. Our project highlights the benefits and obstacles of space research with your school community.

How and why would teachers want to get involved with reaching for the stars (literally) when we are trying to connect students with science in the everyday world? Actually, connecting with students is exactly what happened through our whirlwind participation in a microgravity experiment program performed on the ISS. It all began in 2014 when I had the fortune of attending the International Astronomy Conference (IAC) in Toronto with grade 9 students. It was clear this experience was magical for the students. With the excitement about learning the latest space research, we had the momentum needed to pursue this challenge.

I’m about to tell you about some amazing results, some real learning and career changes. The winning team went to Kennedy Space Center to watch our experiment take off. Before getting there, as fellow educators you need to hear some of the fine print. I was told about this project and nearly bounced off the walls at the excitement of getting our students involved.

First we had to apply to NASA to have this opportunity. The first reality check was that we had to raise a large sum of money — more than $40,000 — alone, and my school at the time had a small community. Secondly, we had a school population of less than 700 and to be involved required involvement of over 200 students — more than the entire ninth grade studying astronomy. Third, some colleagues were excited, some were hesitant, but what they were unified in, was that they were busy. If I wanted to undertake such a project, it was mainly I who had to organize, fundraise for and execute it.

In addition, the parameters of the experimental design were challenging. The experimental tube was quite small (which makes sense considering where it was going) and the cost for anything to reach the ISS is incredibly high, directly proportional to the mass. For the experiment, there were no biohazardous or harmful chemical materials allowed, no light, no temperature control and little interaction with the tube except for clamps to open and close liquids. It was extremely intimidating, but when I casually discussed just the concept with the students, I saw eyes light up; there was excitement and enthusiasm. It is what all teachers are constantly hoping to see. At that point I knew we had to give it a go. There was no guarantee we would even be able to participate. We approached the project with the perspective that this is one of the many risks we must take in life to try to succeed. We were well aware that we might fail. We would all try together, as a community, as a team, as a complete educational experience.

To make a long and tiring story short, my entire school was involved with SSEP and to get around the large numbers we created a community where grade 9 students would pair with senior students as mentors and peers in a competition to create the winning experiment. The
grade 9 contribution was incorporated into their curriculum, but the senior students did the project as an extracurricular endeavour. Rather than a purely scientific experiment, the involvement of the school was a STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) endeavour with a school-wide art contest to design a mission patch to accompany the experiments in space, time in English classes to optimize proposals, and general feedback and collaboration from the entire community. There was plenty of opportunity to have the school population involved, such as the creation of the website, fundraising and the crowd-funding experience. In the end, we raised the money, with some corporate sponsors who found out about our project through our crowdsourcing. Overall it was 30% crowdsourcing with few major sponsors1.

Students went through the entire scientific process, from brainstorming exploratory ideas to researching in scientific journals to support their hypothesis. Collaborative teams of senior and junior students produced research proposals for the ISS in low Earth orbit. Due to the strict safety limitations aboard the spacecraft, proposals had to be rewritten many times. Although it was disheartening for some, many took on the challenge and pushed themselves beyond their comfort zone. A number of students contacted university professors3 for advice on how to strengthen their proposals. Some even went into research laboratories to do preliminary experimentation. Instead of learning how to do science in a classroom, students seized the opportunity to experience science in the real world.

All the students created high-calibre scientific experiments, and the winning team designed an experiment entitled “Levels of Sphingomyelinase (ASM-2) in Caenorhabditis elegans in Microgravity”. They sent nematodes4 into microgravity, and then analyzed the concentrations of ASM-2 upon return to earth. ASM-2 is known to be a significant contributor of oxidative stress, which correlates with decreased muscle mass. Their experiment will enhance our understanding of the mechanisms behind muscle atrophy, which is a common contributor in several conditions such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), stroke and cancer. The runner-ups included experiments with biofilms, planaria and algae. Project details can be found on our website.

The top experiments travelled to conferences nationally and internationally, where they connected with other student teams and leading scientists in aerospace research. Students became immersed in a community where they shared ideas and experimental results with their peers. Science is not only about the individual; it’s a social landscape that depends on communication. Students learned what it means to be in the Space Age and witnessed the research being done all around the world. The launch of the experiment was delayed for more than a year, familiarizing us all with the realities, obstacles and determination that is integral to research in space.

The work for this particular project was, truthfully, more hours than educators should dedicate in addition to their classes. There are many ways to involve your students in research that are more cost- and time-efficient. The lessons learned here are how the students have benefitted. Many of the top students have changed their career paths either to aerospace or with the intent to include space research in their future endeavours and most definitely research.

Other space opportunities

The level of engagement from doing such a project is undeniable. For teachers out there who would like to get involved in space projects, there are many options. Another that I am involved in is Enterprise in Space (EIS). Although it is not yet ready for launch, it is being created with the intention for student experiments to be launched without cost. Its mission (EIS) is to motivate students everywhere to reach for the stars. EIS will design, engineer, build, launch, orbit, recover, tour and exhibit a spacecraft named NSS Enterprise containing over 100 student experiments. Students will use a new, powerful artificial Intelligence tool, learning to apply science, technology, engineering,

arts and mathematics (STEAM) and communicate in natural language with their experiments. At the moment, EIS academy has an education tool where students can train and contribute to microgravity proposals. A great deal can be found on the contests on the EIS website5If you are interested in this type of space research project, explore the NASA website2 for more information to see what fits for your school.

Comments about SSEP

Kimberly Tran

(a highly involved student teacher)

How could we organize 200 students? I found that motivating the students was the least of my problems; many of them had plenty of ideas about potential experiments. I was amazed by the amount of work students would put into their proposals and how readily they took feedback.

Kay Wu

(STEAM Horizon Award Winner, 2017; Student on winning project; pursuing a BSc at Queen’s University)

For me, the most difficult AND the most rewarding part of the lab experience is that I was in complete control of what to do. It is completely different from the labs I carried out at school: once I stood before that lab bench, I had to make my own decisions. This was challenging at times, because when you are conducting research that has never been conducted before, there is no correct answer.

Amy Freeman

Student on winning project, currently studying Neuroscience & Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at University of Toronto)

The junior students amazed me with their ideas and their abilities to solve problems. I learned as much from working with them as they did from working with me. Our team faced many obstacles along the way, but we worked together to come up with innovative solutions based on our research and preliminary testing.


  1. Major sponsors were Magellan Aerospace, Telus and the Toronto Foundation. SSEP organization brought in Magellan, which continues to sponsor the program for others.
  2. NASA information,www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/stu-competitions-current-opps.html.
  3. Dr. Peter Roy’s research lab at the University of Toronto was extremely supportive of our endeavours. We could not have gotten very far without their expert insight into nematodes, their advice on ways we could improve or expand upon our experiment and their friendly and helpful nature throughout.
  4. Nematodes or roundworms are a diverse animal phylum inhabiting a broad range of environments. (Wikipedia)
  5. www.enterpriseinspace.org/ Student contests are found at the https://www.eisacademy.org/