An experiment designed by Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy students will hitch a ride to the International Space Station next spring and stay on board for 30 days to allow time for students to test bacteria growth in zero gravity.
A team of about 20 middle and high school students at the Lafayette academy is working on meeting a deadline of early December to prepare and send the experiment to Valley Christian School in San Jose, California, a school with experience sending experiments to the International Space Station. It will ultimately be placed on a SpaceX rocket for a March 30 launch from Cape Canaveral.
Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy was one of 11 schools selected as part of a program organized by Quest Institute for Quality Education in San Jose, in partnership with NanoRacks, a space hardware and software services company.
The company has a contract with NASA and offers payload space for educational and private research. The program provides students from across the country a chance to design an experiment and launch it into space to the International Space Station as a way to bolster studies in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math.
The Lafayette academy’s curriculum — even English, math and social studies courses — revolve around STEM disciplines with a focus on hands-on learning. The school also touts a competitive robotics team.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” said Paul Pryor, 16 and the project manager for the space experiment project. “You learn new things and put everything you’ve learned so far in life into one project. You can show how far you’ve come from someone who can count to someone who is sending an experiment to space.”
The team considered other ideas such as growing crystals or radishes in space before settling on an experiment to test gravity’s effect on bacteria and its reaction to antibiotics.
“Astronauts’ immune systems are compromised in space. The bacteria is a common skin bacteria that only affects those with compromised immune systems, and it can cause bacterial pneumonia and skin rashes,” Shelly Barnaba, 16, a junior who is the leader of the project’s biomedical team, said.
The experiment fits in a plastic box about the size of a stick of butter. The small box will contain: an onboard computer, the medical bags that hold parts of the experiment, a camera and an LED light.
There will be four medical bags or small pouches. Two will contain bacteria for separate trials. A third will contain the antibiotics and the fourth bag will hold the bacteria broth that will help the bacteria grow. “I’m just the guy who puts it together in the box,” Pryor said as he explained the experiment.
Four pouches also means that there’s a series of pumps to make the experiment happen.
“This is where it gets fun,” Pryor said as he explained the function of the pumps, which will help activate the delivery of the broth to the bacteria and the antibiotics to the bacteria bags.
A separate team, lead by Daylon Piper, 15, is working on programming — writing code to make the light turn on, the camera take photos of the experiment in space and for the series of pumps that will activate at different times to engage the different components of the experiment.
“Every two hours, the camera will take a picture,” said Piper, a sophomore.
The engineering team has the job of figuring out how to fit all the components into the box, which is a true challenge for students who are accustomed to building large robots, said Nicolette Darjean, Thibodaux engineering academy director.
The biomedical team, led by Barnaba, is handling the bacteria (Micrococcus luteus) and investigating which antibiotics are best suited for the experiment. An initial decision to use penicillin was scratched when the team considered that the penicillin needed to be refrigerated and it would have no control over regulating its temperature prior to the launch.
“We’re still trying to figure that part out,” Barnaba said.
Barnaba and chemistry/biomedical sciences instructor Stacy Thibodeaux discussed potential replacements, such as sulphur-based antibiotics that have a longer shelf life.
Barnaba said the work has been stressful but fulfilling. Students have invested at least four hours, sometimes more each week on the project since mid-August. They’ve also put in some all-day Saturday sessions to trouble-shoot and work on issues with visiting mentors.
“It takes a lot of time and energy, but it’s worth it,” she said. “The idea that we can help astronauts not get sick or get better is worth it.”
Then, there’s the added perk that not many people — let alone high school students can achieve: “We’re sending something into space,” Barnaba noted.
The experiment also requires a lot of bacteria and the biomedical team began troubleshooting one problem earlier this week.
“We’re not growing enough,” Thibodeaux said she handled the petri dishes to check for signs of growth.
As she talked through what she saw, the students discussed their next step.
“They’re learning problem-solving skills without knowing they’re problem solving,” Thibodeaux said.
Darjean, the engineering academy director, said the group welcomes the time and expertise of mentors who can help troubleshoot some issues with the experiment in the following areas: microbiology, physics, industrial electronics, micro-manufacturing, thermo-dynamics, space control systems and software programming. It’s a student-led project and students have overcome the challenges they’ve faced as they’ve planned and build out the experiment, Darjean said.
As she supervised groups of students working in small groups, she smiled.
“This is what makes teaching fun,” she said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.