About SSEP

Before reading this page, make sure to read the SSEP Home page for a program orientation.

1. Introduction

Russell County, VA, student researcher Diana Odhiambo (2nd from left) explains her team’s Mission 2 to ISS flight experiment on the rate of oxidation of copper and iron in a microgravity environment during a local media day. Other team members are (left to right) Donna Odhiambo, Jakob Akers, and McKenna Collins. CLICK FOR ZOOM

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) was launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in strategic partnership with NanoRacks, LLC. It is a remarkable U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative that gives typically 300+ students across a participating community the ability to design and propose real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit, first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then on the International Space Station.

The program provides seamless integration across STEM disciplines through an authentic, high visibility research experience—an approach that embraces the Next Generation Science Standards. SSEP immerses hundreds of students at the local level in the research experience—students are truly given the ability to be real scientists and engineers.

Each community participating in SSEP conducts a local Flight Experiment Design Competition, with their student teams competing to fly an experiment in low Earth orbit in a real research mini-laboratory reserved just for their community. The competition is conducted through formal submission of real research proposals by the community’s student teams—just like professional researchers. Students can design experiments in diverse fields, including: seed germination, crystal growth, physiology and life cycles of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria), cell biology and growth, food studies, and studies of micro-aquatic life. Content resources for teachers and students support foundational instruction on science in microgravity and experiment design. A suite of SSEP program elements—the Community Program—leverages the flight experiment design competition to engage the entire community, embracing a Learning Community Model for STEM education. For school districts—even individual schools—SSEP provides an opportunity to implement a systemic, high caliber STEM education program tailored to community need.

SSEP is designed to inspire and engage America’s next generation of scientists and engineers, and it is accomplished by providing each participating community their own very real Space Program.

The program is open to 5 categories of community, which provides a great deal of flexibility in implementing SSEP at the local level:

  • Pre-College (the core focus for SSEP) in the U.S., (grades 5-12), with a participating school district—even an individual school—providing a stunning, real, on-orbit RESEARCH opportunity to their upper elementary, middle, and high school students
  • 2-Year Community Colleges in the U.S., (grades 13-14), where the student body is typically from the local community, providing wonderful pathways for community-wide engagement
  • 4-Year Colleges and Universities in the U.S., (grades 13-16), with an emphasis on Minority-Serving Institutions, where the program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration across schools and departments, and an opportunity for formal workforce development for science majors
  • Communities in the U.S. led by Informal Education or Out-of-School Organizations, (e.g., a museum or science center, a home school network, a boy scout troop), because high caliber STEM education programs must be accessible to organizations that promote effective learning beyond the traditional classroom
  • Communities Internationally: in European Space Agency (ESA) member nations, European Union (EU) member nations, Canada, and Japan with participation through NCESSE’s Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education. Communities in other nations should explore the potential for their participation by contacting the Institute.

Critical Timeline of Activities:
Once a community joins the program, teachers can begin using SSEP-provided curriculum resources for classroom introduction of: 1) the nature of a microgravity environment, where the presence and effects of gravity appear to be absent, 2) the broad range of science that can be conducted in microgravity and why, which is one of the key motivations for constructing the International Space Station–America’s newest National Laboratory, and 3) the approach to designing microgravity experiments using the SSEP mini-laboratory. Student teams across the community then move on to experiment definition and design. Mirroring how professional research is done, teams write flight experiment proposals using a formal and grade level appropriate proposal guideline. The design competition—from program start, to experiment design, to submission of proposals by student teams—runs 9 weeks. The submitted proposals go through a 2-step proposal review process to select the flight experiment for the community. The flight experiment goes through a formal NASA flight safety review at Johnson Space Center, and is transported to ISS as part of an SSEP experiments payload.

Each SSEP Flight Opportunity has its own Critical Timeline which defines all milestones and deadlines.

2. Program Pedagogy

The SSEP paradigm derives from the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education’s Core Beliefs, its embraced Learning Community Model for science education, and its heritage of delivering community-wide programming. SSEP is designed to be flexible enough to address a community’s unique strategic needs in STEM education, to be delivered systemically across a school district, and to be sustainable.

When designing SSEP, we had our pedagogical approach to STEM education in mind. SSEP empowers the student as scientist, and within the real-world context of science that is far more than exploration through inquiry. SSEP allows student teams to design an experiment like scientists, with real constraints imposed by the experimental apparatus, current knowledge, and the environment in which the experiment will be conducted; it allows students to propose for a real flight opportunity like professional scientists, bringing critical written communications skills to bear; it allows students to experience a real 2-step science proposal review process; it allows students to go through a real flight safety review like professional researchers; and it provides students their own science conference, where they are immersed in their community of researchers, communicating their thoughts, ideas, and experimental results to their peers. Science is more than a way of thinking and interacting with the natural world. Science is more than a book of knowledge. Science is also a complex social landscape filled with challenges, and the need for multi-faceted and successful communication with ones peers. SSEP is about introducing real science to our next generation of scientists and engineers.

3. The Flight Experiment Design Competition

STS-134 Flight Experiment research team from Zachary, LA, presenting their results at the SSEP National Conference held at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC, July 6-7 2011. WATCH VIDEO

In each participating SSEP community, as part of the Flight Experiment Design Competition, student teams design microgravity flight experiments and submit well-crafted, formal proposals that are written to criteria defined in the SSEP Flight Experiment Proposal Guide. Proposals go through a 2-Step review process, with the participating community assembling a Step 1 Review Board of local area educators and researchers that selects 3 finalist proposals. The finalist proposals are forwarded to the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board that selects one flight experiment for each community.

SSEP makes use of microgravity research mini-laboratories that NanoRacks, LLC, schedules to fly in low Earth orbit. Each mini-lab contains a single experiment, and multiple mini-laboratories are carried to orbit in a payload box. NanoRacks makes the same mini-laboratory available to the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program as to professional research communities in government, academia, and industry. SSEP student flight teams might therefore share the space in the payload box with mini-labs flown by the professional research community.

Each community participating in the SSEP will be provided space in the payload box for one mini-lab containing their selected flight experiment. A community also has the option to underwrite space for more than one mini-lab, hence more than one flight experiment.

But the goal is not just flying a few dozen student team experiments—it’s ensuring that these experiments result from experiment design competitions at the local level where each competition engages hundreds of students in real science. It is about leveraging authentic research experiences into science education. It is about immersing hundreds of classrooms in the process of experimental design, and student ownership in learning.

Read the details regarding the Flight Experiment Design Competition

4. The Experiment Design Experience


Co-PIs Alvin Wong, Patrick Yang, and Wei Li of the Bronx High School of Science discuss their SSEP Mission 4 to ISS flight experiment. CLICK FOR ZOOM

Student teams across your community propose experiments designed to assess the impact of microgravity (the apparent absence of gravity, also called “weightlessness”) on a physical, chemical, or biological system. For SSEP experiments aboard the International Space Station, an experiment can be run for just a couple of days, to potentially over a month.

Students can design experiments in diverse fields, including: seed germination, crystal growth, physiology and life cycles of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria), cell biology and growth, food studies, and studies of micro-aquatic life (e.g., Planaria Worms). Content resources for teachers and students support foundational instruction on science in microgravity and experimental design.

Each experiment must be designed to work within an existing, flight-ready, easy-to-use, professional research mini-laboratory, which is specifically designed to combine separate sample materials (fluids and/or solids) once in orbit. The experiment loaded into a mini-lab consists of one to three samples (fluids and/or solids, e.g., seeds and a 2% sugar solution) that are located in what are effectively small test tubes. The experiment is begun in orbit when an astronaut operating the mini-lab causes the test tubes to be brought together, mixing the samples.

For Space Shuttle operations, SSEP used the Materials Dispersion Apparatus (MDA) mini-lab. For International Space Station operations, SSEP is currently using the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab.

The experiment samples (fluids and/or solids) used in the student experiments must pass a NASA Flight Safety Review (see Section 10 below.)

Read the details regarding Designing the Flight Experiment

5. The Community Program

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program is also about fostering a community-wide celebration of the human capacity to explore, the nature of exploration, and the joys of learning.

Mission Patches from the art and design competition in Hartford, Connecticut, for SSEP on STS-135, see the winning patch. CLICK FOR ZOOM

We have therefore created a suite of program elements and resources that immerse your entire community in the local spaceflight experiment design competition. This includes: a SSEP National Blog that provides ongoing coverage of the program, and serves as a showcase for community experiences; an art and design competition for a Mission Patch to fly along with the community’s experiment, and which is returned after the flight with a certification that it was flown in space; Student Voices of Mission Control via Twitter providing continuous coverage of the flight; and a National SSEP Conference likely held at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC, where your students formally present on their experimental designs and teams flying experiments report on their results, nationally recognized scientists and engineers are featured speakers, and attendees are treated to tours of the Museum.

SSEP also provides the ability for your community to host—for up to a week—a National Team of scientists and engineers from research organizations across the nation, through NCESSE’s Journey through the Universe program. Team members talk to potentially thousands of students–one classroom at a time–providing firsthand experiences about what it’s like to do research on the frontiers of exploration, and an understanding of the educational path they took to the frontier. The Team also conducts family and public presentations on compelling topics in the space sciences and spaceflight. These presentations also provide opportunities for the community as a whole to honor all the classes that proposed experiments, and to bestow awards for participation in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. Programming by the National Team can also include a 1-day workshop for teachers customized to local curricular need, and capable of addressing a variety of topics, including: use of inquiry-based learning in the classroom, science in microgravity, and experimental design.

Read the details regarding the Community Program

6. A Program Customized to Your Community

A community can choose to make the SSEP flight experiment design competition grade level or discipline specific, e.g., just 7th grade biology classes, all grade 9-12 science classes, or college seniors across all science departments. The SSEP Baseline Program reserves one mini-laboratory slot in orbit for your community, but additional slots can be reserved if you want to: 1) hold separate but simultaneous competitions e.g., one at the middle school level and one at the high school level, or 2) hold a single competition which provides for more than one experiment to fly.

The Community Program resources such as the web-based and social media resources, and the optional National Team visits to classrooms, presentations at family and public events, and professional development workshops for teachers, are tailorable to the grade level(s) your community chooses to engage through SSEP. The SSEP philosophy of approach is to provide flexible resources so that a community can customize the program to their needs. This is not our program it is your program.

To get a sense of how the 84 communities that participated in the first eight flight opportunities (STS-134 and STS-135 on the Space Shuttle, and SSEP Missions 1 through 6 to the International Space Station) customized SSEP to their strategic needs in STEM education, visit the Community Profiles page at the SSEP Community Network Hubsite.

7. Size and Nature of a Participating Community and Appropriate Lead Organization

You are free to define the size of your community as you see fit. It can be a single school district of any size, or multiple school districts working together—which is a great model for a rural area. It can even be a single large school. It can be a department in a college, or multiple schools across a university. It can be an informal education institution that can serve as a focal point for community-wide engagement in out-of-school time.

An appropriate lead organization in the community might be a school district(s), a museum or science center, a college or university, or some other institution dedicated to education, such as a home school network.

When it comes to defining “your community”, we encourage you to think outside the box, and to Contact Us with your thoughts.

8. Implementing SSEP Across Your Community—To School Districts, Schools, and Science Educators

Chicago, IL, STS-135 student researcher Eren Fitzgerald with Flight Experiment titled: Will Microgravity Effect the Development of Goldfish? CLICK FOR ZOOM

Your community’s participation in SSEP will most likely be coordinated from a central office at a local institution, and/or by a key science educator. For example, for a school district, it might be the Supervisor of Science in the science (or STEM) office briefing secondary science teaching staff across the district, or briefing a corps of lead science teachers who can then take the program back to their schools. For SSEP participation by an individual school, it might be a lead science teacher, with the blessing of their principal, that engages the cross-disciplinary science teaching staff.

A participating community will designate a SSEP Community Program Director (or Co-Directors) who oversees a SSEP Local Team charged with formally carrying out the program. The SSEP National Team (us) is available for conference calls, or Skype videoconferences for program briefings. Such conferences have provided a community’s Local Team a formal grounding in the program, a sense of community-wide ownership, a common starting point, and a venue to ask questions. These conference calls have been exceedingly successful in getting aboard the 99 communities that have participated in the nine SSEP flight opportunities to date.

It should be noted that science teachers at upper elementary, middle school, and high school levels, as well as at community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, and across multiple science disciplines, have already effectively engaged their classes in designing and proposing experiments to fly aboard STS-134 and STS-135, and to the International Space Station. SSEP is a proven program. As a benchmark, for the first eight SSEP flight opportunities, there were a combined 7,922 proposals submitted by student teams. A total of 3,358 proposals were forwarded to the communities’ Step 1 Review Boards. 325 finalist proposals were then submitted to the National SSEP Step 2 Review Boards for selection of the flight experiments—one experiment for each participating community. You’re invited to read about the Experiments Selected for Flight at the SSEP Community Network Hubsite. Explore media coverage of the SSEP experiences across the Community Network on the SSEP In the News page at the Hubsite.

We also strongly recommend seeking out an interdisciplinary, advisory group of local area researchers that you can convene to help students and teachers think about experiments, react to experimental design concepts, and also serve on your Step 1 Review Board. You might even consider having this researcher advisory group provide a panel discussion on experiment design for your community, and one that can be taped and archived. Finally, in the age of Skype, we also strongly advise student teams to reach out to researchers in specific disciplines of interest across the nation and even internationally. SSEP thus provides a wonderful opportunity to put in place a formal relationship between your students, your educators, and researchers both locally and nationally.

9. Implementing Experiment Design in the Classroom

The community is free to decide if SSEP should be implemented in the classroom, during out-of-school time, or some combination of both. It is also up to the community to decide the acceptable size of a student team proposing an experiment, e.g., a small group of students, an individual student, or a small class of students (note the typical team size is 3-5 students). But each proposal must have a designated Teacher Facilitator who is charged with guiding students on the team through the experiment design process, and serving as an editor on the proposal. A teacher can serve as Teacher Facilitator to multiple student teams.

For implementation of SSEP in the classroom, we have assembled a suite of Teacher and Student Proposer Resources, which includes: this SSEP Website; ongoing Technical Assistance (via contact information on the Contact page) for questions on experimental design, timeline, and submission, which in turn feeds a FAQ; and a Document Library that includes documents providing student proposers with basic information on the science one might undertake in microgravity, case studies of experiments suitable for the mini-laboratory, and all information required to write and submit a proposal. An additional resource—To Teachers, How to Move Forward—is a straightforward, step-by-step facilitation recipe for how to bring SSEP into the classroom, and get students moving on experiment design.

We invite students in participating classrooms to truly slip on the shoes of the researcher and propose and design experiments just like professional scientists and engineers—experiments designed to the spaceflight hardware to be utilized, and constrained by NASA requirements. One cannot imagine an education program with greater potential to engage students in the process of scientific inquiry, and get them thinking about a career in not just spaceflight, but across all science and technology disciplines.

Read the details regarding the Teacher and Student Proposer Resources

Mandatory NASA Flight Safety Review and Constraints on Fluids and Solids to be Used in the Experiments

Each selected flight experiment must pass a NASA Flight Safety Review (a review by NASA Toxicology at NASA Johnson Space Center)—which means that the fluids and solid materials to be used in the experiment—the Experiment Samples—must pass review. The safety review ensures that the experiment samples pose no risk to the astronaut crew, the ferry vehicles, or ISS. The level of risk depends on the toxicity of the experiment samples AND how well they are contained in the mini-lab. The more “levels of containment” that are engineered into the mini-lab, the less the restrictions on the experiment samples that can be used.

For SSEP on the Space Shuttle (STS-134 and STS-135), the mini-lab used had “two levels of containment”,which required that student proposers could only use experiment samples on a Master List of Experiment Samples. This list included hundreds of allowed samples across 9 separate science disciplines for microgravity research, yet still restricted experiment design. For SSEP on the International Space Station the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab has three levels of containment so that the Master List of Samples is no longer required, allowing far less restriction in experiment design by student teams.

Going to a 3-level containment system for ISS extends NCESSE’s commitment to ensure the broadest range of experiment design experiences, and a high level of confidence that all experiments selected for flight will pass the NASA Flight Safety Review. As a benchmark, over the first eight SSEP flight opportunities, all 114 experiments selected for flight passed NASA flight safety review.

The milestones for Flight Safety Review are part of the Critical Timeline associated with each flight. Four months in advance of launch, NCESSE must provide NanoRacks a list of the experiment samples for the flight experiments selected to fly, which NanRacks passes on to the NASA Toxicology Office at Johnson Space Center. Some time before launch, NASA will rule on whether the experiment passed Flight Safety Review. Each student flight team can continue ‘tweaking’ their experiment sample concentrations and volumes to optimize their experiment until approximately 2 months before launch—but only in terms of reducing concentrations and volumes. And the team has no ability to introduce new experiment samples.

11. The SSEP Cost Model and How We Can Help You Find Funding

Commercial spaceflight is a business, and for the Nanoracks payload of research mini-labs to fly requires NanoRacks to secure paying customers for the lease of mini-lab slots and all launch services. Our non-profit National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) created SSEP as a national STEM education program based on the availability of these mini-lab slots. The Center is a customer of NanoRacks, and books multiple mini-lab slots for SSEP. In addition, the Center’s staff deliver all SSEP national resources to the participating communities. All SSEP activities are therefore associated with real costs, and the Center must charge a participating community—but on a strictly full cost recovery basis.

SSEP currently has very limited national sponsorship dollars to help underwrite program costs. To participate in SSEP, a community must therefore identify underwriting, and it is appropriate to secure funds from both the public (e.g. local, state, and federal education grants) and private sector (e.g., community-based foundations, businesses, and philanthropic organizations.)

But we can help! Our goal is to make a real difference in STEM education through this program. We also recognize the significant challenge to all communities in securing underwriting in the current financial climate. The Center is therefore committing significant resources to help communities find underwriting for every SSEP flight opportunity. And we’re successful at it. We found full or partial funding for 116 of the 136 SSEP community programs undertaken across the nine SSEP flight opportunities to date. We can help your community identify funders, even take the fundraising lead on your behalf if you wish; we can help you tune your request to a funder’s underwriting requirements; we have a good proposal template if needed, with a track record of success; we have developed a set of appropriate talking points when approaching a funder; and we have a good track record for securing funding rapidly. So let us help!

12. Program Cost

We recognize that SSEP needs to be flexible enough so its scope at the community level can be tailored to fit community size. We have received requests from both large and small school districts—even individual schools—that wanted to participate in prior SSEP flight opportunities. It is interesting to note that in the U.S. there are nearly 14,000 school districts, 12,000 of which are small with less than 5,000 enrolled students.

To provide maximum access for a broad range of interested communities, we are therefore making SSEP available as a Baseline Program that provides for breadth of programming at the lowest possible cost. The Baseline Program reserves for your community a mini-lab scheduled to fly in orbit, provides the Experiment Design Competition for up to 3,200 students, provides all Teacher and Student Proposer Resources, and provides the majority of the Community Program elements. The Baseline Program can then be augmented with Supplemental Program Options allowing the community to broaden SSEP as they see fit.

The Baseline Program includes:

  • flight of one Mini-Laboratory reserved for your community
  • the Flight Experiment Design Competition, but limited by the community such that no more than 3,200 students are provided the opportunity to participate. Expanding student participation is a Supplemental Program Option.
  • all Teacher and Student Proposer Resources
  • all Community Program elements with the exception of: 1) the community-wide programming for students, teachers, families, and the public delivered by a National Team of scientists and engineers (this is costed as a Supplemental Program Option, with the cost reflective of the scope of program required); and 2) the National Conference at likely the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, DC, which may require a registration fee per attendee. However, for the 2011 through 2014 conferences, NCESSE was able to provide the Conference at no cost, but communities were responsible for all costs associated with travel for their delegations. We currently expect the same approach for the 2015 conference.

Baseline SSEP Program Cost: $23,000

Read the details regarding SSEP Program Costs

XT STEP: go to the How to Participate page to read about the current SSEP opportunity available for your community and how to explore your participation in the program.

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The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (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 NanoRacks LLC, 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.