To Teachers – How to Move Forward

Last update of this page: February 27, 2024, 9:31 am ET – updated for Mission 19

We recognize that teachers are the critical driver for student participation in the SSEP. We also recognize this is not your typical science fair experiment approach to experimental design. So here are some tips on how to proceed—

Navigating this Website for Experiment Design Information

This website may seem like a lot, but it’s pretty straightforward to use. Most of the pages provide information on the larger SSEP landscape—the community-wide experiment design competition, the community programming that leverages the excitement of that competition, and how a community participates. To gain an understanding of this larger landscape, you just carefully read the Home page, and the More on SSEP page.

However, teachers need to concentrate on getting students moving on experiment design. So here is the key. All the information that specifically addresses the design of student experiments—how teachers and students should begin framing experiments, the specifications of the research mini-lab that needs to be used, the experiment constraints imposed by the mini-lab and its operation on the International Space Station, and the suite of resources provided to teachers and students—are all accessed through a careful read of the Teacher and Student Resources page (the link labeled “Teacher Resources” in the top navigation banner.) Think of that page as your Grand Central Station for SSEP experiment design in the classroom! One of its sub-pages is the page you are reading now.

A Proposed List of Tasks and Activities for SSEP Launch and Management in the Classroom (provided in a reasonable order)

a. To get up to speed with SSEP experiment design, a teacher should first read the Teacher and Student Resources page, and as directed, explore the links on that page. (Hint: grab a cup of coffee or tea in advance of moving forward with this first step!) Also know that we can set up one or more teleconferences with your teachers to address any questions.

b. Provide an overview of the SSEP program to your class: e.g., the goal of community-wide engagement in real science, and an understanding of the Flight Experiment Design Competitiona web page that you might want to project on a screen with an LCD projector.

c. Have your students read through the Designing the Flight Experiment page, then discuss it thoroughly as a class making sure to brainstorm the experiment examples. Consider projecting the Designing the Flight Experiment page on a screen with an LCD as you discuss it. This page will get students (and teachers) in the right frame of mind for experimental design.

d. Get you students really jazzed by taking them to the following pages:

SSEP Community Profiles and Local Partners, where you can read about all the communities that participated in previous SSEP flight opportunities, on the final flight of Space Shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis, and on SSEP Missions to the International Space Station

Student Experiments Selected for Flight: read about the selected flight experiments and finalist experiments for all prior SSEP flight opportunities, and the remarkable student research teams that designed them

Scientific Return and Reporting: watch videos of student researchers presenting at the annual SSEP National Conference at one of the most visited museums on planet Earth – the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

SSEP In the News: media coverage from around the nation—this is going to happen in YOUR community!

In Our Own Words: thoughts on the community experience from students, teachers, and community leaders

Showcase of Community-Created Videos: videos created to assist with fundraising, build program awareness, document the student experience, and dare we say it … even just for fun.

Mission Patches, that flew on previous SSEP flight opportunities: your community will fly one too!

e. Project your SSEP Mission’s main page on the screen and explore the flight details as a class.
SSEP Mission 19 to ISS main page
SSEP Mission 18 to ISS main page
SSEP Mission 17 to ISS main page

f. Have the class read the Microgravity Science Background and Microgravity Experiment Case Studies documents (both found in the Document Library), and have a deep and broad class-wide discussion on the different categories of science addressed. This should really get the experiment design juices flowing. Note that some of the nine science categories are more suited to lower grade levels (5-8), such as Seeds and Plant Studies, and Fish and Other Aquatic Life. So decide if there are specific science categories you might want to skip based on grade level appropriateness.

Have the class also read the Using Biologicals In SSEP Experiments: Dormant Forms, Fixatives and Growth Inhibitors document to understand how to plan a biological experiment so that it can remain dormant until it is activated in orbit, and how the experiment can be ‘turned off’ (if needed) before it is reintroduced to gravity as the mini-laboratory is brought back to Earth.

g. You might have the class read the Master List of Experiment Samples document (found in the Document Library) as one means to start researching typical examples of experiment samples (fluids and/or solids) that are used across the different categories of microgravity research experiments, e.g., freeze-dried bacteria and a separate growth medium; or radish seeds and distilled water. Note that for SSEP on the Space Shuttle, student teams were required to only use experiment samples on this Master List. But for SSEP on ISS there is no such requirement, given the capabilities of the new mini-lab being used (the Fluids Mixing Enclosure or FME). For SSEP on ISS, the Master List only serves as a good reference document.

You can assign, e.g., different teams to research samples (fluids and solids) on the Master List in the different science categories and report what they found to the class. Wikipedia offers a wealth of information on these samples, and typically provides primary references at the bottom of the Wiki article. You’ll see that some categories are far better suited to middle school grades (e.g. Seeds and Plant Studies.) Then, as an exercise, really challenge your students to come up with lots of questions—and corresponding hypotheses—that you can ask of the samples on the List, and that dovetail with the content in the Microgravity Science Background document.

h. For your flight opportunity, put the Mini-Lab Operation page up on a screen and very carefully walk through the mini-lab’s specifications and operation with the class, and the important constraints on experimental design. Once this is done, the students will have an understanding of all the constraints they need to impose on their thinking when framing an experiment. These include constraints imposed by the size of the mini-lab; the fluids and solids that are not allowed or are possibly problematic; the temperature of the mini-lab that can be expected over various transport legs, including transport to Houston, transport to ISS, and transport back to Earth; the 5 allowed days for crew interactions on ISS, and the types of crew interactions that are possible.
SSEP Mission 19 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page
SSEP Mission 18 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page
SSEP Mission 17 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation page

i. Put the Teacher and Student Resources page up on a screen, and walk the students through all the resources at their disposal. This Resource page is meant to show teachers and students how to address issues and questions as they arise.

j. For your flight opportunity, put the Critical Timeline page up on a screen, and walk the students through the deadlines and milestones for their design competition.
SSEP Mission 19 to ISS: Critical Timeline
SSEP Mission 18 to ISS: Critical Timeline
SSEP Mission 17 to ISS: Critical Timeline

k. Have the students read the Flight Experiment Proposal Guide (found in the Document Library), and the related document the Flight Experiment Proposal Guide: Background for Student Proposers, so they understand the requirements for the 5-page proposal, and the basics of the evaluation system to be used by the proposal reviewers. Also make sure YOU read the document Flight Experiment Proposal Guide: Background for Teachers, which includes the detailed assessment rubric that is used for proposal review by both your community’s Step 1 Review Board, and the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board, for flight experiment selection.

NOTE: the size of each proposing team is up to you. It could be an entire class, a group of a few students, or a single student. But be aware that your community’s Step 1 Review Board needs to review all community proposals and forward just three to the SSEP National Team. Talk to your SSEP Community Program Director to see what (s)he thinks might be a good teaming size.

l. Go have fun!


3. Important Advice to Teachers

3.1 Important Caution When Exploring the SSEP “Experiments Selected for Flight” Pages:
As a great way to get ideas for microgravity experiments, student teams are encouraged to visit the SSEP Experiments Selected for Flight pages where they can read summaries of all the flight experiments selected to date. However, these pages list summaries for all 3 finalist experiments submitted to NCESSE by each community for review by the SSEP National Step 2 Review Board. The Review Board found that many finalist experiments had a critical design flaw that precluded them from being selected as the flight experiment. A common example was a biological sample that would clearly not survive to get to orbit as proposed, and the experiment would fail. These were therefore designated honorable mention experiments. Your student teams should therefore only consider the summaries for the selected flight experiments when exploring the range of possible SSEP experiments.


3.2 NCESSE Urges All Student Teams to Reach Out to LOCAL Researchers:
SSEP provides the opportunity for you and your students to reach out to local area researchers that have backgrounds in e.g., microbiology, even microgravity research. We strongly encourage each student team to seek advice and counsel from area researchers (who by the way will love to be involved in SSEP). But what is important is that the experiment must be designed by the student team. The local researcher needs to understand the constraints on their participation – they can serve as a sounding-board for ideas and a source of expert advice.

In addition, there are three other important motivations for collaboration with local researchers and research institutions: 

a. It is possible that some of the samples that a team wants to use in their experiment, such as freeze-dried biological samples, are only available to the professional research community and NOT to schools. It may be that a partnership with researchers becomes essential in order to secure the needed samples.

b. Local area researchers likely have access to an enormous array of laboratory resources and analysis equipment, far beyond what the school or district may have. A winning flight proposal requires a well-defined analysis protocol for how the experiment samples will be assessed after flight in order to discern the results of the experiment. The proposal needs to make clear what equipment will be needed for the analysis, and how the team is going to gain access to that equipment.

c. The community’s Step 1 Review Board needs to include both master Science and STEM educators and local area researchers. The Review Board ought to have at least as many researchers as educators. For full details, read the Guidance for Setting Up A Step 1 Review Board in Your Community page.

Note: in rural areas where there may be no close research institutions, consider reaching out to doctors at local area hospitals. They are well versed in the scientific protocols for experiment design, and will have a broad knowledge of microbiological samples.

There is, however, a critical need for each student team to have a researcher as advisor who is an expert in the very specific discipline associated with their experiment, and there is a straightforward way to accomplish this. See the next section. 


3.3 NCESSE Urges All Student Teams to Reach Out to NATIONAL Researchers – Using Google SCHOLARS Search:
Researchers serving as advisors to student teams do not have to be local in the age of video-conferencing and email. Each student team is going to propose an experiment with a very specific focus, e.g., the impact of microgravity on a very specific organism, and the chance of finding a local researcher who is an expert on that organism is remote. NCESSE therefore urges EVERY TEAM to seek out national – even international – experts in the specific area of research the team is proposing.

An easy approach is to do a Google SCHOLARS search on the team’s specific experiment topic. The search will return a list of refereed (scholarly) research publications in the scientific literature, with authors listed together with their home institutions – typically a university. The student team can then go to that university’s website and look up the researcher’s contact email and phone number in the university’s online directory. The team can then contact the researcher – in fact should contact multiple researchers – to see if they can secure a researcher advisor. Most researchers will bend over backwards to help, and you can use video-conferencing, email, and phone calls for communication.

Hey, here’s even a template for an email invitation to send a researcher: SSEP Advisor Invitation (MS Word document). You can customize it as you see fit.

A helpful hint – when doing a Google Scholars search, set the search parameter to only search literature going back a couple of years to limit the search to recent research.

Google Scholar can be found here:

A Good Example of How Google Scholar Saved a Flight Experiment:
A student team in North Attleborough, MA, proposed exploring planaria worm regeneration in microgravity. Studying regeneration processes in general can lead to a deeper understanding of wound healing, and possibly even the ability to regrow lost limbs. The team proposed that understanding the role of gravity in regeneration was a worthy goal for a flight experiment. The Step 2 Review Board agreed, awarding the team the flight experiment slot, though directed the team to demonstrate that the planaria worms would survive to get to orbit. The concern was that the mini-lab with live worms would be on the ground for a few weeks awaiting launch. The team’s initial thought was to have a significant supply of food in the mini-lab. NCESSE urged the team to identify the worlds renowned experts in planaria worm regeneration and put the question to an expert. To do this, a Google Scholars search was carried out on “planaria worm regeneration” and an expert was found. On contacting the expert, who was overjoyed to help, the team found out that what they needed to do was not feed the planaria but starve them, which would induce hibernation. The conversation with the expert fundamentally changed the approach and saved the experiment. No local area researcher would likely have had the expertise.


3.4 Vendors:
When designing an experiment around specific fluids and solids, make sure that you can find vendors that: 1) can provide you the fluids and solids, and as rapidly as called for on your flight opportunity’s Critical Timeline page, and 2) provide the fluids and solids at a cost that is not prohibitively high. Your community is responsible for the cost of the fluids and solids.

That said, we have found with the earlier SSEP flight opportunities that if you tell a vendor about the SSEP program they will most often bend over backwards to help you, often providing the fluids and solids at reduced or no cost. Also let the vendor know that NCESSE will be very happy to list them as a Local Partner for your community on the SSEP Community Profiles and Local Partners page for your flight opportunity.

Finally, if you cannot find a vendor, let us see if we can help!


3.5 Testing Experiments:
Make sure that all student teams are designing experiments to be carried out in the volume and dimensions of the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab that must be used for the flight experiment.

NOTE: Each community receives only five FME mini-labs, all of which must be set aside and protected by the community for the experiment that is ultimately selected for flight. The student flight team will use them for their flight and ground control experiments, and for flight experiment optimization.

All experiments that are being proposed by your student teams should be tested to the extent possible using standard laboratory test tubes (with volumes equivalent to that of the FME mini-lab), in advance of writing any proposal, in order to assess if the experiment is viable. The data from these tests should in fact be incorporated into the proposal. Once the flight experiment for the community is selected, the student flight team needs to assess and optimize the experiment using an actual FME before the final lock-in of the flight configuration of the experiment.


4. Other

a. We encourage you to submit student videos on the experience that we can upload to the SSEP YouTube site.

b. SSEP on Twitter: all student teams and teachers are invited to share their SSEP experiences by posting on Twitter with the embedded ‘#SSEP1’ hashtag. You can follow along by doing a search on Twitter for #SSEP1, which will display all tweets that include this hashtag. Note – you’ll need access to Twitter to participate, which might be blocked by a school district. Talk to your IT contact if needed.

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.