The Flight Experiment Design Competition

NOTE: This is a sub-page of the Teacher Resources main page which you should read first.


A Competition Reflecting Real Science

STS-134 researchers from Orange County, FL, with the Flight Experiment: The Effect of Microgravity on the Ability of Ethanol to Kill E. Coli. CLICK FOR ZOOM

The Flight Experiment Design Competition is designed to reflect how real science is done. Organizations like NASA and NSF routinely send out national Announcements of Opportunity (or AOs) to the professional science and engineering communities. These announcements might be opportunities for research funding, or opportunities to gain access to unique research resources, e.g., like a powerful telescope. All interested researchers must then submit a formal proposal, which they write to be consistent with proposal guidelines provided as part of the announcement. All the proposals from the research community are then submitted against a deadline, and a review board of peers is assembled to critically review proposals against assessment criteria that were part of the proposal guidelines. Each proposing team is competing head-to-head for limited resources, and the vast majority of the teams will not be successful. To be competitive, proposers need to be exceptional writers, capable of telling a coherent, concise, and powerful story about how their proposed research fits within the historical body of knowledge, and why it is important enough to win.

THE KEY POINTreal science is done by competition, and reflects an interdisciplinary weave of science, technology, history, and written communication skills—in the languages of both English (certainly in the U.S.) and MATHEMATICS. Competitions in education settings are often viewed as just creative incentives for learning, are often not very substantial in required breadth and depth of content and inquiry, and are even viewed by some educators as an unhealthy learning style. But a core objective for the education of our children must be to prepare them for the real world. And high caliber STEM education is vital if we are to both inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and promote a scientifically literate public. We therefore firmly believe that high caliber science competitions ought to be formally integrated into the STEM curriculum as a means of providing real experience with real science – which needs to include the competitive landscape in which science is done. We cannot imagine a higher caliber STEM competition than students designing real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit in a professional mini-laboratory aboard the International Space Station.

Regarding the proposals that do not get selected for flight, there are truly no losers. All student teams competing across your community are immersed in real science. And at the conclusion of the selection process, we find that all the teams naturally rally around the winning team and root for their community’s experiment destined for space. Also important is the recognition that each proposed microgravity experiment requires a ‘control experiment’ (also referred to by SSEP as a ‘ground truth’ experiment), which is an identical experiment carried out on Earth in Earth gravity at the same time the experiment is conducted on ISS in a microgravity (weightless) environment. On return to Earth, comparison of flight and control experiments allows the research team to assess the role of gravity in the physical, chemical, or biological system under study. This means that all proposing teams can at least conduct their ground truth, and report out on their experiment design, data analysis, and conclusions, and hypothesize what they might have seen in orbit and why. All teams across a community could report out at something akin to a science fair specifically for SSEP.

Math … a language?! You might want to read this essay at the Huffington Post on cross-curricular math integration, written by SSEP Program Director Jeff Goldstein. 

How the Competition Works

Your competition will result in multiple experiment proposals from student teams across your community. Each student team has a Teacher Facilitator, who serves as a liaison to the SSEP, and signs a Letter of Certification of a Student-Directed Effort which states that: 1) the experiment was designed by the students, but with possible input sought and received from professional researcher advisors, and 2) the proposal was written by the students with possible editorial input from the Teacher Facilitator. Each proposal is no more than 5 pages, and reflects a simple format defined in the SSEP Flight Experiment Proposal Guide. A Background for Teachers document provides the proposal evaluation criteria.

Your community will set up a Step 1 Review Board, which you can establish with local science educators and local area researchers (we can help you identify researchers in your area if needed.) The task of the Step 1 Review Board is to review all proposals from across your community – based on the proposal evaluation criteria – and choose THREE finalist proposals for each experiment slot you have reserved. The community then forwards the finalist proposals to the SSEP for formal review by the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board – a national team of professional scientists and engineers, and distinguished STEM educators – for flight experiment selection. The Step 2 Review Board will select one experiment to fly from your finalist proposals, for each experiment slot you have reserved. This 2-step proposal review process models a real call for proposals for a flight opportunity by NASA.

The approach described above serves to: 1) engage your community in the selection process, which in and of itself is a teachable moment for students and teachers, 2) limit to a manageable number the total number of proposals received for review by SSEP, and 3) allow the community to be of any size – given the community forwards only 3 finalist proposals to SSEP for each experiment slot the community has reserved.

Meet the SSEP National Step 2 Review Boards for all SSEP flight opportunities to date. 

Objectives for the Proposal Evaluation Criteria

The competition mirrors how professional scientists propose, conduct, and report on their research programs. It is a real world, multifaceted process that is far broader than just submitting an experimental write-up. It requires critical thinking in order to pose a good scientific question, and creatively design an experiment and experimental procedures that might provide an answer to the question. It requires a good understanding of the experimental constraints imposed by the flight opportunity, including the operation of the mini-laboratory and spaceflight operations to and from low Earth orbit. It requires an understanding of core knowledge—often across many disciplines —as the foundation for framing the experiment (teachers – read SSEP Director Jeff Goldstein’s essay The Power of Models for a powerful look at the process of scientific inquiry, knowledge versus process, and the immense power of models in science and science education.) And it involves important communication and writing skills to: justify the proposed experiment, put forward a competitive proposal, and ultimately report results to the larger scientific community.

The proposal evaluation criteria (found in the Background for Teachers document that supports the Flight Experiment Proposal Guide) are therefore reflective of the entire process, including all the skills described above that each student team must bring to the opportunity. It is not simply about assessing whether a proposed experiment will pass a Flight Safety Review. This program is truly designed to let students BE scientists.

Read descriptions of the selected flight experiment and finalist proposals for the flight opportunities to date  … and be amazed. 

FACT: For the first 19 SSEP flight opportunities (through Mission 17 to ISS) there were a combined total of 29,526 student proposals submitted by student teams across the participating communities, with 11,895 forwarded to Step 1 Review Boards.

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 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.