Bullard High School SSEP project prepares to blast off to International Space Station

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After a few bumps along the road and a couple of delayed launches, a team of four students from Bullard Independent School District will soon see their scientific experiment travel to the International Space Station.

The team of BHS junior students Emmalie Ellis, Emma Rhyne, Valerie Vierkant, and Raelee Walker is hoping to have their experiment blast off and worked on about the ISS in zero gravity when SpaceX CRS-12 Mission 11, America, launches from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Sunday, Aug. 13.

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.

“We’re all just excited that this is finally happening and actually going into space,” said Walker. “We’ve had these moments before, but now it’s actually taking place. Our group has worked very hard, with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears poured into this project.”

The group’s experiment, entitled Microgravity’s Effects on Solanum Tuberosum Resistance to Phytophthora infestans, focus around the group’s desire to see if potatoes in a zero gravity environment is sensitive to potato blight, a disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, as they are on Earth.

Rhyne and Walker represented the group recently at the University of Texas at Tyler, where the duo worked alongside Associate Professor of Biology Ali Azghani for two days to properly package the scientific experiment inside a microgravity lab tube, a cylindrical tube 6.75 inches long with an outer diameter of 0.5 inches.

From there, the project was sent via FedEx by Bullard ISD to NanoRacks LLC in Houston in preparation to be sent to Florida for the space flight.

The group’s teacher advisor, Jennifer Smith, said all four members of the group have worked hard and dedicated themselves to the project’s completion, calling their work on the experiment the equivalent of collegiate-level research.

“I’m excited to see this experiment finally be sent into outer space,” said Smith. “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.”

Rhyne said that despite the cancellations and the worry that the experiment would never reach the vastness of space, the effort and work put into the project by the group was worth going through the trials.

“I believe it has been worth it all,” said Rhyne. “Not only are we getting to send this project into space and get results, but I’ve learned the importance of proper research, being thorough, and effectively communicate with my partners. I’ve also learned life lessons in how to face overwhelming adversity and hurdles that come up at the last minute.”

Azghani, who has worked with the group since they were announced as one of the selected groups to send an experiment into outer space, said he believes the project is an educational necessity.

“I believe this project was a great opportunity to have students come up with great scientific ideas,” said Azghani. “The project allowed students to establish goals, work together, fix any problems they encountered, and establish practical aspects of their goals into their projects. It was a wonderful scientific process. As far as I am concerned, projects like this are a must in the world of education.”

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.

The project first came about after an email was sent to a Bullard ISD board member. 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.

“We first heard about the SSEP STEM project through an email received by one of our school board members,” said Amanda Goode, Bullard ISD curriculum specialist and district testing coordinator, who served as the leader for the SSEP STEM project district-wide. “They forwarded the email to Mr. Schneider, who then forwarded it to me. When I read about the project, I knew it would be a huge undertaking, but I knew we had the right teachers and the students to do this project well. Most of the students involved in the SSEP STEM project have been involved in project-based learning projects for several years; they are very familiar with projects life this; they are used to the technology, as well as the collaboration and communication necessary to do the project. They’re also used to the innovative teaching methods at Bullard ISD which allow for students to experience a hands-on approach to education instead of normal learning through the use of textbooks.”

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.

According to Goode, the project was strongly focused in the realm of science, with BHS science teachers Carl Logan, Alaina Cannon, and Jennifer Smith leading the charge in their classrooms.

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. ”

While in space, the project will be worked on by astronauts who will conduct the experiment before it is returned to students for harvesting and analysis.

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.

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