SoCal students compete to send their science experiments to space

NASA Ames Research Center Jacob Cohen speaking to students at iLead's Lancaster location.
NASA Ames Research Center Jacob Cohen speaking to students at iLead's Lancaster location.
Sydney Croasmun/iLead

Kids across the country are designing experiments that they hope astronauts will perform in a lab in space. Among the hopeful: 5th through 12th graders at Southern California's iLead charter schools.

They’re participating in this year’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, an initiative launched in 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The group works with NASA to send winning experiments aboard the International Space Station. Previous winners have included testing kidney stone growth and brewing beer in space

This week, a NASA engineer visited the charter's Lancaster, Santa Clarita, Simi Valley and Encino locations to help their students come up with their own proposals.

iLead’s Kathleen Fredette spoke to KPCC about the recent visit of Jacob Cohen, chief scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center.

“When he was presenting to our learners in Lancaster, he had some great visuals that showed stuff from 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars' that we never would have thought just a few years ago that we have,” said Fredette.

“He [told] stories about space and where we're headed next in space exploration, and the fact that these kids right here are the ones that are going to be on Mars," said Fredette. "It's not going to be us.”

With the help of pros like Cohen, student teams will submit their proposals in April to a panel of scientists. The chosen experiments will move along to a national conference held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and will then be reviewed at the Johnson Space Center.

It’s a long process with many teams vying for spots. Fredette said that the program is looking to send the winning proposals to space in 2017.

Meanwhile, participants are keeping their ideas under wraps.

“Once they start doing their experiment designs, we kind of go behind a veil of secrecy,” said Fredette. “So while we're all about collaboration at iLead, in the design process here we won’t… because it’s a competition and that’s how real science works!”

Still, in the end, it's not about being the best.

Fredette said that the charter schools aren’t just for “the cream of the crop,” adding that students are offered opportunities to show their own abilities. 

“So really [it’s about] encouraging them to use their imagination and to really jump into this project to help develop themselves as scientists and learners — no matter what they're going to be,” she said.

After all, Fredette said: “Who doesn't love space? What kid isn't excited about 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' and 'The Martian'?"