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Student scientists devise experiment that will really take off

March 6, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Students from 21 schools across the U.S. and Canada competed for the chance to have their science experiments sent to the International Space Station. One of the student teams selected, from East High School in Rochester, New York, designed an experiment on the process of photosynthesis. Special correspondent Sasha-Ann Simons from PBS station WXXI reports.
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JOHN YANG: Students from Rochester, New York’s East High School have been busy this year writing a detailed proposal for a science experiment that is out of this world.

As Sasha-Ann Simons from PBS station WXXI reports, the project was chosen to be conducted on the International Space Station.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: When East High School chemistry teacher Mary Courtney submitted three proposals last fall for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, she couldn’t wait to find out which one would take off, literally.

MARY COURTNEY, Teacher, East High School: This was a very difficult project. It’s probably the most difficult project that our students do their entire time in high school.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: As part of the program, students from 21 schools across the North America were competing for the chance to have their science experiments that test how microgravity affects various organisms sent to space.

Students De’Aunte Johnson, Tailor Davis, and Binti Mohamed were thrilled that their proposal was the winning one from East High.

BINTI MOHAMED, Student: Ms. Courtney pushed us aside and she brought the other two people that were involved. And she was like, you guys won. I was like, are you serious? Like, I started freaking out.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: They chose to conduct their research on a group of microscopic organisms called phytoplankton, which live in lakes and oceans. Through the process of photosynthesis, the organism produces half the oxygen we have on Earth.

MARY COURTNEY: The question is, when this goes to space, is there an effect by not having gravity on the production of the chlorophyll? And the other variable that happens is these — this experiment is going to be kept in a dark container, and so it’s not going to be exposed to oxygen.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: Johnson is the captain of this student spaceship.

DE’AUNTE JOHNSON, Student: We had a couple of different choices, but we picked mine.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: So, this was your idea?

DE’AUNTE JOHNSON: It was my idea, but I had the bounce my idea off of them a couple times just to make sure when we got it correct.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: The final proposal was a true team effort, though.

BINTI MOHAMED: There were parts we all had to do. Tailor was doing the introduction and De’Aunte was doing part three and four and stuff like that.

So, De’Aunte reviewed it later on and changed some certain stuff that we needed to clarify or get into more detail with.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: So, why did they choose phytoplankton?

MARY COURTNEY: As the United States and other countries move forward with space exploration, the idea eventually is to be able to establish colonies, either on the moon, other planets. Right? And so you have got to be able when you’re — if you’re on Mars, you have got to be able to produce food.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: That means the work is far from over. The 21 winning experiments will blast off in a mini-laboratory to the International Space Station in June.

The first order of business for the East High team will be to figure out which type of phytoplankton they will use.

DE’AUNTE JOHNSON: And also which type of mixture we’re going to use to make sure they have enough nutrients when they go up into space.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: The students are getting acquainted with a spectrophotometer, a machine that measures the intensity of light, and is perhaps what will be their saving grace.

DE’AUNTE JOHNSON: But are they moving?

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: And if you haven’t guessed it already, there’s a lot riding on the student project.

Once the experiment is aboard the space station, astronauts will interact with it, based on the guidelines set by these three.

As the person who has watched it all come to life, Courtney says she couldn’t be more proud.

MARY COURTNEY: I want them to think completely differently about everything around them at the end of the year. And if I do that, and they think really differently about everyday subjects, then I have accomplished my goal.

SASHA-ANN SIMONS: For PBS NewsHour, I’m Sasha-Ann Simons in Rochester, New York.

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