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Petaluma High aims to send science project to space, following Mark West Charter


Students at Mark West Charter School are counting down the days to when their science experiment returns from space.

Packaged in a 6-inch test tube and launched skyward in July, their query into how a tiny, shrimp-like crustacean will grow in near-weightless conditions is orbiting the planet in the International Space Station, tended by astronauts. It will return to Earth in a month and a half. It will then make its way back to Sonoma County, where students will analyze the results.

“We’re really excited to see if they do grow in space,” said Mark West eighth-grader Halei Trowbridge, 13, adding that the experiment was providing her and her classmates with a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience.

At Petaluma High School, a different kind of countdown is going on: Administrators and community members are racing to raise enough money by Monday so their students can participate in the same program and have a chance of launching their own experiment into space.

They still must raise about $8,500 of the $23,000 tab needed to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program run by the nonprofit National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. The cost pays for lab supplies, curriculum and the expense of sending the experiment to the space station.

“We’re on tenterhooks,” said Linda Judah, a Petaluma High School biology teacher who has coordinated the effort to bring the project to Petaluma. “I think we’ll get there, but it’s a little tight.”

Her school recently started an online fundraising campaign which as of Tuesday night had raised $660. Other funds have come from the Petaluma City Schools district, a grant distributed by NCESSE, and local businesses including Petaluma Refuse & Recycling, the law firm Byers Costin Simon, and the environmental consulting group Environmental Pollution Solutions.

The program gives students at schools around the country a chance to design real-life experiments about the effects of the near-weightless state of micro-gravity, which astronauts will test out in space.

This year, of more than 100 interested schools, only 33 have been accepted, and Petaluma High School is one of them, said Jeff Goldstein, NCESSE’s director. One science experiment from each participating school is guaranteed a spot on the international space station the following year, so long as students meet NASA’s timelines and requirements.

Judah said the project was perfectly in line with the type of instruction Petaluma High School is trying to create: “authentic experiences” that model real-world science. Students work in groups to propose experiments while also learning a specialized curriculum developed by NCESSE.

“Through doing this project, they’ll be learning about a lot of the stuff we’d be teaching through traditional methods,” she said. “Now, they’ll be framed within the lens of micro-gravity.”

Last school year, students from Mark West Charter School, John B. Riebli Elementary and Piner High School worked together to design the experiment currently in space, which is seeking to determine if tiny crustaceans could be grown in space and used as a protein-rich food for astronauts, said Mark West’s Director Pam Carpenter. It was one of just 15 projects from around the country that made the mission.

On Tuesday, Mark West seventh graders peered at dried eggs through microscopes they’d just learned to use the week before. They weren’t attending the charter school when students designed the experiment last year, but they’ll be helping to analyze the test tube when it returns from the space station.

“We’re looking at triops eggs, they’re like miniature shrimp,” explained Sarah Diaz, 12, who along with her partner, 12-year-old Tyler Edwards, was trying to get the lighting on the scope just right. “It’s pretty cool the experiment is up in space right now.”

Seventh-grade math and science teacher Corissa Sunde said, “This is real science,” adding that last year’s students had to contend with similar constraints and setbacks to those professional scientists experience.

Eighth-grader Trowbridge said, “We learned a lot of things can go wrong, there’s a lot of trial and error.” Some students were excited to design an experiment with magnets but couldn’t because magnet’s aren’t allowed on the space flight. They had to be painstakingly prepare their test tube in sanitary conditions so that it would work properly. Technical difficulties at the space station postponed their mission’s launch date by several months.

The students’ enthusiasm did not seem dampened by the challenges.

“It’s amazing think we’re only 13 and we put this together,” said eighth grader Ysabelle Chu, 13. “Our parents are just in awe.”

If Petaluma High gets its funding, about 400 students at the school would participate the program, Judah said. High schoolers would then visit elementary and middle schools and teach the younger students what they’ve learned.

Students would begin learning the curriculum next week, Judah said.

To learn more about Petaluma’s program or to donate, visit: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/kids-in-space-petaluma-high-ssep

Y ou can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.