In early 2016, a group of four Bullard High School freshman students were selected to send a science project into outer space. Now, the project has returned from its celestial visit and the team has been able to get a first glimpse of their findings with the help of a professor at the University of Texas at Tyler.
The SpaceX CRS-12 Mission 11, America, launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Monday, Aug. 14, carrying the experiment of now-BHS junior students Emmalie Ellis, Emma Rhyne, Valerie Vierkant, and Raelee Walker, entitled Microgravity’s Effects on Solanum Tuberosum Resistance to Phytophthora Infestans.
“It was pretty amazing when the project finally went into space,” said Vierkant. “We’ve all been waiting basically our whole time in high school for it to actually go. It’s literally been like a rollercoaster because we’ve had several delays and rescheduled flights, so finally getting to see it leave was great. It was a mixture of excitement and relief for me personally because there finally was no more stress; we had done everything we could do to make it the best experiment the best we could make it, and now, it’s back and we can start looking at the results.”
The group’s experiment focuses around their desire to see if potatoes in a zero gravity environment are sensitive to potato blight, a disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, as they are on Earth.
Of the 21 science projects selected throughout the world for the Mission, Bullard ISD is one of three Texas science experiments selected for the honor.
During its space travels, the BHS science experiment, packaged inside of a microgravity lab tube, a cylindrical tube 6.75 inches long with an outer diameter of 0.5 inches, spent a total of six weeks onboard the International Space Station, where they were tested to see if the spuds were susceptible to the potato blight disease.
“The potatoes were in space for six weeks, and they really smelled awful when we got them back, but it was a scientific awful smell,” said Rhyne. “There were a total of eight pieces of potato in the tubes, with three pieces as part of the clamped control side of the tube, where they wouldn’t be exposed to the potato blight, and the five remaining pieces inside the tube that were in the unclamped part of the tube.”
The team of four was informed of the experiment’s arrival back to Bullard ISD on the school’s 2017 Homecoming game day on Friday, Sept. 22, going together to the district’s administration office to retrieve their special space package.
“When we went to the admin building to pick up the experiment, our excitement was a little low initially because it was Homecoming, so we had to miss our spirit day,” said Ellis. “However, when we picked up the box, it was just an amazing feeling to know we were actually holding something that had been to space and back.”
After the project returned to Earth, the group was taken to the University of Texas at Tyler by BHS science teachers Randy Lloyd and Elizabeth Hardin to further examine the space spuds alongside Associate Professor of Biology Ali Azghani, who has been working with the team since their first place recognition in 2016.
A total of three of the four team members worked with Azghani following the experience’s safe return to Earth, including Ellis, Rhyne, and Vierkant. Due to other obligations, Walker was unable to attend.
“Dr. Azghani was super excited when we got the experiment back and went over to UT Tyler to work with him,” said Ellis. “You could tell that he was a little more laid back now that we had the experiment back and there wasn’t anything to stress about.”
During their time working with Azghani, the group unwrapped the package of sealed tubes and opened the scientific capsules, beginning with the control tube due to the tube from space still being pressurized. The young scientists emptied the contents into Petri dishes, then weighing and smelling of the experiment before looking at their project underneath the lens of a microscope.
“It was really cool to look at the experiment, both the potatoes in the control and the ones that were in the opened tube in space,” said Vierkant. “There were a lot of differences, such as texture and color, and some of them didn’t even resemble the other pieces. The potatoes that were here on Earth in the control were shriveled up and dry, while the space potatoes were still moist. We were able to take pictures of them under the microscope which was a neat aspect.”
According to Walker, the most difficult part of the almost two-year-long journey from award-winning scientific project to space science experiment and back to Earth again was the planning in the initial phases in 2016.
“Honestly, the planning was the most difficult part of this whole thing,” said Walker. “We didn’t have a clue what we were going to do. Originally, we just started bouncing ideas off of one another. We had so many options, but we had to narrow our options down due to the space available inside the tube. I initially proposed sending fish eggs into space, and Valerie came up with the idea of doing something with heart disease. We also thought about doing an experiment with gray matter of the brain. A lot of ideas bounced but never stuck, but then one day, Emma came to school and discussed doing Phytophthora Infestans on potatoes, and the rest is history.”
Ellis said despite the long waits and delays in sending the project into space, the experience with the group and creating the experiment was worth the while.
“It’s definitely been worth it all,” said Ellis. “We were looking in the hallways the other day and saw the picture of us that was taken at the school board meeting the night we were announced as the winners of the Bullard ISD competition, and we were amazed at how long ago that was and how much younger we were. We didn’t know what we were doing initially. It’s cool that we can actually say we’ve worked together to send something into space. At the beginning, we really didn’t know each other and ended up in a group together, but now, we’re all really good friends. It’s awesome to see what can come about when you put hard work, effort, and determination into something.”
The project first came about after an email was sent to a member of the Bullard ISD Board of Trustees. From there, Bullard ISD staff members worked with students to create experiments for the project. The SSEP project was a success at BHS, with approximately 360 students involved in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) competition.
During the competition phase of the project, two other student science projects were selected as finalists in the competition out of over 80 Bullard ISD projects.
The experiments entitled The Effects of E. Coli on Sharkskin Surface in Microgravity, proposed by Matthew Bradley, Ashley Kethan, Alyssa Fowler, Elise Humphries, and Trevor Johnson, and The Dissolving of Kidney Stones in Microgravity, proposed by Jake Timme, Wes Carter, Hunter Ganske, and Tucker Pine, received the designation of finalist experiments.
Bullard ISD Superintendent Todd Schneider said the SSEP experiment is the sort of project the district wishes for its students in order to increase educational opportunities.
“This project is truly what we are looking for in education,” said Schneider. “We wanted to get competitive thought process in the minds of our students that deal with real things in this world and expose them to worldwide global education. I am humbled to be the superintendent of Bullard ISD because of the effort the staff and students have given in this project. ”
In June 2016, the group loaded up and traveled to Washington D.C., where they presented their project to an audience at the Smithsonian Institute with approximately 30 different groups presented their SSEP projects, including groups from across the 50 states and Canada.
The groups presenting at the Smithsonian Institute ranged from groups that were selected as finalists to groups that had already been into outer space and had come back to report on their experiment.
Jennifer Smith, the group’s teacher advisor, said the team worked very hard to accomplish their goal of spending their experiment to space, and hopes that with the data in hand, they may make a breakthrough discovery.
“They’ve worked very hard and have done extraordinary amounts of research for this project, like the amount of research required for a collegiate experiment,” said Smith. “I’m really excited we were able to get the experiment back and work with Dr. Azghani on the preliminary findings. Hopefully we’ll be able to study the data and see if we can make a possible scientific discovery.”
The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program [or SSEP] is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.
SSEP is the first pre- college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.