What Does it Mean to Reach for the Stars?

It was a typical, busy Friday afternoon when I received an email from Dr. Jeff Goldstein, Director of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never, to my knowledge, received an email from him before.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there was a program that provided an opportunity for elementary and high school students to design an experiment that would be flown in space!  Before I was able to wrap my mind around what I had read, I was on the phone, listening to the sound of the line ringing.  When Dr. Goldstein answered, he marveled at how quickly I can read an email.  He soon found out, however, that I hadn’t read thoroughly, as I had many, many questions.  By the end of our first phone conversation, I had a solid understanding of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP).  The biggest obstacle to our participation, it seemed, would be funding.

I was pleased to discover that Indiana Space Grant Consortium was willing and able to fund a large community from Indiana.  At that point, I had organized a science community collaboration and after a few minor bumps, we were fully funded and ready to go! 

From there, Avicenna students were put into groups to brainstorm about various topics, but ultimately, the groups worked together on each proposed experiment.  I reached out to the larger science community in North America and was absolutely floored by the positive response that I received.  I organized a panel of scientists with expertise in various biological fields and was even fortunate enough to receive local help from Indiana University Northwest.  Dr. Harold Olivey went above and beyond in helping the students with some of our questions and concerns relating to feasibility of various proposed topics, and the kids are still marveling about the “neat” lab equipment they were able to see and use at the university. 

We were able to meet with our collaborators in Anderson so that our community could interact in person, not just electronically or telephonically.  The students were able to interact and exchange ideas.  It was a rewarding experience for me, as an educator, to see the kids break out of their shell and communicate with other students whom they’ve never met in person before. 

From the very beginning, I understood the magnitude of SSEP and the significance that it would have not only on a national or historical level, but also for the individual students that were fortunate enough to participate in the program.  We were able to extend to our students the opportunity to get into a real lab, meet with real, professional scientists and work together with people they only recently met on creating an experimental design.  SSEP gave our students an opportunity to emulate professional researchers.  The lessons that the students were already learning in the classroom were expanded upon and many new lessons were introduced.  At Avicenna Academy, our fifth and sixth grade students were introduced to and researched topics that were at or surpassing the ninth and tenth grade level of life sciences.  I am so proud at their ability to not only comprehend the topics, but also at the gusto in which they proceeded working once they realized the topics they chose were “complicated”.

The added bonus to all of this is that Avicenna Academy Science Community Collaboration’s experiment will fly aboard the historical, last-ever flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.  After this final flight, it will be retired to a museum, never to enter orbit again.  The end of the current US Space Shuttle program has gained a lot of publicity and space scientists across this country have been speaking out publicly about the importance of continued space research.  In fact, Captain Wendy Lawrence, former NASA astronaut, came to Northwest Indiana to speak at the Reaching for the Stars event in April.  She spoke directly to students about the importance of STEM education and what she believed to be the future of space science.  One of our very own SSEP student participants, Avicenna Academy’s Jenna Rifai (6th grade) won the opportunity to ask Captain Lawrence a question.  I hope to be posting a video of that interaction in the near future.

The experimental design and mission patch design competition are now over and now we are able to progress with laboratory science!  Our students are writing hypotheses, fine tuning their proposals and are beginning to do the ground control experiments.  I see in them a newfound respect for the work that goes in to science.  There is a marked difference in their thought processes.  It is evident that now they think deeper and they work together in solving problems. 

I am so happy to have the opportunity to serve as the Director of our community’s involvement in SSEP and I am so very, very grateful to each and every person who contributed to our SSEP journey.  I urge you to continually support advancement of STEM education and think outside of the box as it pertains to ways to educate our students.  I have spoken with many colleagues about the current shift in education that we’re seeing in our nation.  The reality is that there is a great need for problem-solving skills.  While investigation and research are crucial, we need to help our students develop MORE skills and abilities.  Specifically, we need to teach them how to think, how to use the information that they find and why it’s important.  Programs like SSEP  get them excited, involved and motivated to learn.  This program has truly given our students the opportunity to reach for the stars!

Please feel free to visit back here often to see what we’re up to in the laboratory.  If you’re interested in discussing our involvement in SSEP further, please feel free to contact me.

~Amanda Arceo

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