This article was written by students from iLEAD Schools, a network of charter schools in California. Through a partnership between iLEAD Schools and Space Station Explorers partner program DreamUp (an educational spinoff company from ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider Nanoracks), iLEAD students design experiments that are launched to space to be done onboard the ISS.
Space Station Explorers is a community of educators, learners, and organizations that leverage the unique platform of the ISS National Lab to provide valuable science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational experiences. To learn more about DreamUp and other Space Station Explorers partner programs, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org/STEM.
The DreamUp to Space Design Challenge is a program run at iLEAD California Charter Schools that offers learners the opportunity to author and conduct a science experiment to be run on the International Space Station (ISS). Learners gain an understanding of the ISS, microgravity, and scientific experimentation and then write proposals for experiments that are reviewed by aerospace experts. We are a group of middle and high school learners that proposed exploring the effects of microgravity on the germination of Yucca glauca seeds, and our proposal was selected from more than 50 submissions!
We chose Yucca glauca (a type of plant with long, narrow leaves) because it can be used in a variety of ways, including making soap from its roots, creating textiles with its leaves, and using it for other medicinal benefits—all possibly valuable for future space travel. After being selected, principal investigators Grace Stumpf and Carter Sand then interviewed and chose six other learners to join Team Yucca Glauca to tackle the challenging work of experiment optimization in preparation for flight.
Preparing Research for Space
Experiment optimization is the process of running simulated experiments on Earth to determine the ideal quantities and configuration of experiment materials. In our case, this included seeds, water, and formalin (a fixative), as our experiment had to start and stop in microgravity. We ran many, many trials during this process.
Our first trial targeted identifying the substrate, which is the medium for seed germination. The substrate is vital in supporting optimal seed germination. We tried paper towels, coffee filters, and EVA foam (which has many uses, for example, in hydroponics or as flooring for a gym). We also had to consider how the germinated roots might interact with the different substrates, which would impact our analysis post flight. After running trials, we concluded that the EVA foam was the best substrate candidate due to its firmness and ability to absorb water while holding its shape. We made small “boats” out of the EVA foam that fit into the Mixstix, a tube-like hardware used by some microgravity scientists. The design of the “boat” secured the seeds in place during their flight, unlike other substrates we tested, as small slits were cut into the “boat” to which seeds were inserted using tweezers.
We next moved to trials that focused on the most effective seed-to-water ratio and finally developed our Mixstix setup: two “boats,” containing two seeds in one chamber, with two milliliters of water and one milliliter of formalin in the other two chambers (see photo). Once we finalized our experiment setup, we were a go for launch!
Our space and Earth (control) samples were loaded in the science lab at Santa Clarita Valley International Charter School in Castaic, California, and then shipped to Nanoracks for payload integration. Some of our team members traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to watch our experiment launch and to present our science poster to guests who were visiting the center. It was an experience we will never forget!
Learning and Growing
Once our Mixstix returned to Earth, we traveled to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Moss Landing, California, to unload them. We were hosted by Kenton Parker, Elkhorn Slough Reserve director of education (retired), and Peggy Foletta, Elkhorn Slough Reserve education specialist and GLOBE Program master trainer. There, we worked with scientists who supported an amazing educational experience for us. Our team used microscopes to view our samples and explore the cell structure of roots. Unfortunately, our experiment experienced challenges that yielded inconclusive data.
However, we learned that even inconclusive or “no” data also offers the chance to ask more questions to try and figure out what did not work as we expected. This has led us to do even more experiment trials so we can understand how to set up future experiments using Mixsitx for success. In fact, four of our Team Yucca Glauca members are now serving as iLEAD DreamUp to Space interns to support the next five student experiments that are targeted to launch in December 2023!
Through this program, we have grown individually and as a team—we have developed as communicators, public speakers, researchers, and problem-solvers, which all require perseverance, leadership, and teamwork. One of the amazing opportunities our team was given was presenting at the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research Conference in 2022. Our experiences will help us throughout the rest of our academic and professional careers, and it is an honor to take these experiences and accomplishments with us into the rest of our lives.