UNCG Campus Weekly

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We Have Liftoff. Godspeed, Brine Shrimp.

032311Headline_EndevourWhen local middle-schoolers needed help with a tiny experiment that would go into outer space, who better to assist than the experts in tiny, right?

Researchers in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN) deal with and create the tiniest of experiments and engineering. Dr. Adam Hall, who leads the microscope lab at the joint school, explains that with their powerful microscopes you are “seeing individual components of the molecule.”

Students in five Guilford County middle schools competed last fall to see who would launch an experiment aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in April. Commanded by astronaut Mark Kelly, the mission will be the final Endeavor one, as the shuttle missions come to a close.

The space they were allotted on the shuttle for their experiment: a miniscule one-eighth inch³.

This Student Spaceflight Experiment Program was initiated by The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education and NanoRacks LLC. JSNN is a joint academic program of UNCG and NC A&T.

Jacqueline Oates, outreach coordinator at JSNN, learned about the competition. She contacted the national center’s regional office, and told several of JSNN’s researchers, such as Dr. Adam Hall.

Hall is keen on science outreach to schoolkids – especially related to nanoscience. He will help lead an outreach at NanoDays in Raleigh later this year, when thousands of children will congregate at a kids’ museum to learn about nanoscale science.

Students in five Guilford County schools competed in the Shuttle challenge. JSNN researchers invited them to the joint school for a day of lab tours and an introduction to all things nano. They acted as mentors, and ultimately the young students created about 40 experiment proposals. “It was a fun experience,” Hall says.

He served as one of the local judges, as did Dr. Shyam Aravamudhan, assistant professor of nanoengineering. Three experiments were selected locally, to be submitted for final judging by the center.

Two graduate students, Richard Vestal and Adam Boseman, served as advisors for the young scientists. And Dr. Joseph Starobin was a key facilitator and advisor, as he discussed and helped clarify the link between possible options of the experimental design and related scientific background.

As Starobin reflects on his work with the students, he notes a particular discussion about physics and nanotechnology. “It was like an improvised interactive class with a positive very creative feedback. It was obvious that kids got used to this type of conversation during their routine science classes with their teacher Ms. French.”

The winner? An experiment involving what many people would refer to as “Sea-Monkeys,” but are more accurately called “brine shrimp.” One specimen of the miniscule brine shrimp will be on the shuttle, one will be a control group back on planet Earth. The experiment will look at the effect of gravity on their life cycle.

“The winners have needed help with samples,” Hall said. They needed to provide their materials to NASA for toxicology testing, so JSNN faculty showed them how to mathematically quantify measurements in microliters and make saline solution to NASA’s specification.

“When the day came to go back to JSNN (to do this), the kids were very excited,” recalls Lenny Sue French, the Mendenhall teacher leading the team. “The doctoral student and Dr. Shyam Aravamudhan led them through the measurement and the math. We left JSNN with a feeling of having just accomplished something very important.”

Nine children at Mendenhall Middle School are on that winning team.

Across America, 16 experiments were chosen – and 20,000 grade 5 through 12 students participated in the competition, says the center’s director, Jeff Goldstein.

As Goldstein said about these 20,000 students in an open letter announcing the winners, “They rose to the challenge, gently slipped on the shoes of real scientists, rolled up their sleeves, and did remarkable things. They are ALL winners.”

As the local schools’ statement on the center’s web page explains, Guilford County schools is committed to working with area universities to provide students with opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

JSNN is reaching out to be a part of that. And their work with these particular middle-schoolers has not ended.

“After the return of the shuttle and our experiment, the JSNN has volunteered to help us compare the ‘space born’ brine shrimp with their ‘Earth born’ brothers that we will be hatching simultaneously in a hotel room in Cocoa Beach, Florida,” French says.

The middle-schoolers have been invited to watch the launch from the same area where the family members and NASA staff will be.

Adam Boseman, a graduate student, recalls his own middle school classes, with his friends’ parents who worked in science fields coming to his school to give demonstrations. One time, he and a group were challenged to create a new invention. But that doesn’t compare to doing something with NASA, he adds.

“Nothing quite as cool as this happened when I was a middle-schooler.”

By Mike Harris
Photograph courtesy NASA