BHS students showcase winning STEM project at Smithsonian Institute


A student group from Bullard High School recently had the opportunity of a lifetime, as the group presented their winning Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) project at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

The experiment is part of Mission 9 of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education.

The winning science experiment, entitled Microgravity’s Effects on Solanum Tuberosum Resistance to Phytophthora infestans, is the Bullard ISD flight experiment chosen to represent the district on the SSEP Mission 9 to the International Space Station.

Members of the team proposing the selected experiment included Bullard High School freshmen Emmalie Ellis, Emma Rhyne, Valerie Vierkant, and Raelee Walker.

Representing the group at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. were Rhyne, Vierkant, and Walker. Ellis was unable to attend.

The project by the group was the top project selected out of approximately 80 Bullard ISD student science projects. Of the 21 science projects selected throughout the world for the Mission, Bullard ISD is one of three Texas science experiments selected to be a part of Mission 9 SSEP.

The group loaded up and traveled to Washington D.C., where they presented their project to an audience at the Smithsonian Institute Wednesday and Thursday, June 29-30.

“The experience at the Smithsonian Institute was very surreal,” said Rhyne. “It was also slightly stressful, but was a huge honor to represent Bullard and show how great things can come out of small towns like Bullard.”

According to the group, an approximate total of 30 different groups presented their SSEP projects during the two-day event, including groups from across the 50 states, as well as groups from Canada. The groups presenting at the event 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.

Rhyne said that the experience at the Smithsonian Institute allowed the group to view several pieces of American history through its gallery displays.

“We got there early and sat outside to really take it all in,” said Rhyne. “There were pictures of astronauts everywhere, as well as big posters saying everything that the Smithsonian was doing. When we went inside, we went through the galleries and saw exhibits like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright brothers’ planes, and more.”

According to Walker, the opportunity to work with the other members of the group, as well as share and discuss the group’s project at a venue such as the Smithsonian Institute, has helped the group to bond together.

“It was a really great experience,” said Walker. “We were all definitely nervous. One of the groups that presented actually had an experiment that was very similar to ours. It’s been very exciting to have the chance to work with the other girls in the group. At the beginning, I really didn’t know them very well, but now, we are really close.”

While at the Smithsonian Institute, the group also shared their project with visitors of the museum by setting up a table display in one of the museum’s galleries.

“We had to set up a poster and table in just 20 minutes for our table display,” said Rhyne. “I believe that the experience was incredible because we were able to explain our project to people not only from different states, but also different ages and different walks of life. We actually stationed our poster right in front of the Apollo 11 display, so we would see people walking towards us with their eyes lit up.”

During their trip to Washington D.C., the group was able to visit other famous landmarks around town, including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, the Capital Building, and the White House.

The group also visited the National World War II monument, where they had a chance to visit with Texas representatives of the Future Farmers of America, who were also in town for an event.

According to Bullard ISD, the SSEP project was a success at BHS, with approximately 360 Bullard ISD students involved in the initial Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) competition and project selection.

“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.”

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.

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 recognition as finalist experiments.

A total of 80 BHS student groups were created for the project and were tasked with the mission to create a scientific experiment that would fit inside a microgravity lab tube, a cylindrical tube 6.75 inches long with an outer diameter of 0.5 inches.

Students were given the duty of fitting everything necessary for their experiment inside the small area of the tube, as space is limited on the International Space Station.

After the 80 BHS student groups submitted proposals detailing their experiments to a local campus review board, a total of 20 student projects were selected to attend a SSEP STEM Work Day on the campus of the University of Texas at Tyler in November.

At the work day, students were able to work with several UT-Tyler science faculty members on their projects on areas such as the practicality of the project. According to Goode, Dr. Ali Azghani, a faculty member in the biology department at UT-Tyler, assisted Bullard ISD in working with students on finalizing their projects’ proposals.

After the Work Day at UT-Tyler, the 20 project proposals were finalized and sent to a review board, led by Azghani and several other UT-Tyler faculty members. From there, the review board selected three of the science experiments as finalists.

In addition to the science experiment, students had the opportunity to design official mission patches, which will travel with the experiment into space. The Bullard ISD Board of Trustees selected two student-created patches to accompany the science experiment into space at the December board meeting. The two selected patches were designed by BHS students Peyton Moore and Avery Ruffin.

“The SSEP STEM project is a true project-based experiment,” said Jan Hill, Bullard ISD deputy superintendent. “It is a cross-curricular project involving the integration of English Language Arts, Math, and Art classes, as well as Science classes. This project is an example of true accountability that is more applicable that a one day state test; this is everyday real world learning where students work together problem solve, and use higher-level thinking skills. This was a very successful project for our students, as well as our district.”

The group’s winning experiment underwent official NASA Toxicology Flight Safety Review February. However, the projected launch of the SSEP Endeavor payload of experiments, named for the Apollo 15 Command Module, was cancelled in late Spring, and is tentatively scheduled for launch in November.

The Bullard ISD experiment will travel to the International Space Station where astronauts will conduct the experiment before it is returned to students for harvesting and analysis. While the experiment is being performed on the International Space Station, the group of Ellis, Rhyne, Vierkant, and Walker will perform the same experience at UT-Tyler to see the difference in it being performed on Earth, compared to outer space.

“It’s pretty exciting that we get the opportunity to send this project into outer space,” said Walker. “A lot of people never receive an opportunity like this, especially students. It’s really a big deal and shines a light on Bullard ISD. Not a lot of schools have been able to do this, so to have the opportunity to send something to space is a great honor.”


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