Paolo Nespoli/NASA, via Associated Press
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
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Overview | In this lesson, students read about a new contest seeking student science experiments to be conducted on the International Space Station. They learn more about space-based research, design experiments they would like to see carried out in microgravity and develop scripts for video pitches to promote their ideas.
Materials | Computers with Internet access.
Warm-Up | Introduce or review the terms “Newton’s laws of motion” and “surface tension of water” and jot them on the board. Then show the following two videos from World Science Festival: “Fun, Games, and Newtonian Physics in Space” and “The Stickiness of Water.” Then ask: How did the videos teach you about Newton’s laws of motion? How did both the coin toss and the tackle on the International Space Station play out differently than they would on Earth? How does water on the International Space Station behave differently than it does on Earth?
Explain that scientists sometimes want to ask questions about how gravity affects a process, like cell division or plant growth. To answer those questions, they need to remove gravity to see how those processes run without gravity affecting them. The best way to do that – at least for periods of time longer than a few seconds — is to conduct research in space.
Lead a quick brainstorm, encouraging students to think about other questions they may have about physical processes in space. To help get them started, you might provide the following prompts:
- Given how water behaves in a microgravity environment, do you think other materials might behave differently in space as well?
- Could the water in living systems, like our bodies or plants, behave differently in space? How else might traveling in space affect the human body?
- What other physical phenomena does gravity affect? What might we learn by studying these processes in the absence of gravity?
Related | In the article “Challenge to Students: Have Space Station Run Your Experiments,” Kenneth Chang announces a new competition inviting high school students to produce videos pitching their ideas for experiments to run on the International Space Station in the microgravity of low-earth orbit:
Make a two-minute video. Get an experiment flown to the International Space Station.
YouTube and Lenovo, the computer manufacturer, announced on Monday a science contest called SpaceLab for students around the world ages 14 to 18, and it is not quite like any other science contest.
For one, the students, who can enter individually or in teams of up to three, do not actually have to perform any experiments. Instead, they will make videos to pitch ideas for experiments that could be conducted in the zero-gravity environs of the space station.
The two winning entries will be built and flown there, and astronauts will conduct a demonstration that will be broadcast to classrooms via YouTube.
Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- Who is sponsoring the SpaceLab science contest? Why are these organizations sponsoring it?
- What will happen to the experiments chosen as SpaceLab winners?
- Describe two other student science experiments that have previously flown on space shuttle missions.
- What is the grand prize for the two students who win the contest?
- What are some of the purposes of doing experiments and conducting scientific research in space?
Activity | Working individually or in pairs, students propose research questions and design experiments to be conducted in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station, then pitch their ideas to their classmates.
To begin, you may want to walk students through the Designing the Fight Experiment resource produced by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which clearly guides students through the process of thinking up a research question and designing an experiment to be carried out in space.
The resource nicely sums up the overarching question behind spaceflight research thus: “What phenomenon associated with a physical, chemical, or biological system would I like to explore with gravity turned off for a period of time?”
With that guiding question in mind, invite students to browse some of the kinds of space-based research currently under way on the I.S.S. as well as studies carried out on previous space shuttle missions, like the Columbia’s 2003 flight, which ran more than 90 experiments.
Consumer product companies, for example, use research in microgravity to develop fluids with improved physical properties, such as fabric softeners or pharmaceuticals whose ingredients don’t separate. One perfume company even sent a rose on a space shuttle flight to learn if fragrances behave differently in space. It turns out they do – and the scent has been incorporated into a perfume sold by a Japanese personal care products company.
NASA also has conducted extensive research on the effects of space flight on the human body. Fluids in the body, for example, distribute differently in the absence of gravity, and during extended periods of space travel, astronauts can lose bone and muscle mass because their bodies no longer have to resist the pull of gravity.
At age 77, John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the Earth, flew on a 1998 mission in part to help medical experts learn more about the biological effects of aging and space travel.
Students also might browse a list of team and individual projects that have flown on the space shuttles Atlantis and Endeavor to learn more about the kinds of experiments their peers have run in microgravity. Winning projects included investigations into whether ethanol, used in many hand sanitizers, would kill E. coli bacteria in microgravity and how fish eggs develop in space.
In other challenges, students have questioned whether drops of water would behave differently in microgravity than on earth when exposed to a static charge.
Finally, students may check out sample submissions under the “Experiments” tab on the SpaceLab page describing the competition.
After reviewing these resources, ask students what additional questions they have about physical or biological systems in space, and encourage them to work either individually or in teams to develop a research question and design an experiment to test it in space. The following questions may help them get started:
- What question would you like to explore in microgravity?
- What is your hypothesis? On what research or earlier observations are you basing your hypothesis?
- How will you conduct your study? Have you identified your variables? Does your experiment have a control?
- How will your results be collected and analyzed?
- If applicable, provide a sketch or prototype that helps visualize your experimental set-up.
To wrap up, have students write a script for a two-minute video meant to explain their question, hypothesis and experimental design.
Be sure students understand they will not be carrying out their experiments in the classroom – their task is to define the question they want to address, identify their hypothesis, and clearly explain how to carry out the experiment and gather data. Their experiments need to be explained clearly enough that an astronaut on the International Space Station, without any way to communicate with the student, could run the experiment and collect data independently.
They might use the first page of our Laboratory Experiment graphic organizer (PDF) to develop their hypothesis and procedure.
Provide time for individuals and groups to share their ideas with the class and invite feedback.
Going Further | For those students with a sincere interest in competing in SpaceLab, encourage them to produce videos and submit their proposals. To get them started, direct them to the resource on the SpaceLab YouTube channel. You also may wish to review the teacher resources for guidance on how to help students enter the contest; direct students to the official rules for more detail on how to prepare entries, including tips on designing experiments and creating prototypes, as well as basic, but essential, information, such as how to register and contest deadlines.
Life Skills: Life Work
2. Uses various information sources, including those of a technical nature, to accomplish specific tasks.
Life Skills: Working with Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group.
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills.
8. Understands the structure and properties of matter.
9. Understands the sources and properties of energy.
10. Understands forces and motion.
11. Understands the nature of scientific knowledge.
12. Understands the nature of scientific inquiry.
13. Understands the scientific enterprise.
1. Demonstrates competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
4. Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
6. Understands the nature and uses of different forms of technology.
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