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Enlighten Me: Middletown students sending minnows into space

Katie Peikes
Delaware Public Media
Olivia Court, Alivia Alessandrini, Kainat Azhar, Noah Keller and Moulai Njie prep their experiment to send it to NASA.

A team from Middletown’s Everett Meredith Middle School is sending minnows into space.


They’re one of 11 teams whose experiment was selected to go into orbit as part of a national competition in which students design an experiment to test in Earth’s orbit.




What happens if you launch minnows into space? Can they grow and survive in conditions where gravity is low and almost non-existent?


These are some of the questions five Middletown students hope to answer when NASA launches a project they created from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station June 1.


A few weeks ago, the seventh graders came together to pack their project and send it to Houston, where it will be prepped for the Florida launch on a SpaceX rocket. 


But it was a long road to get there, and it began with a competition that eighth grade science teacher Meredith Swartzendruber introduced to the school last year.


“I have this extensive network of teachers around the country and even in Canada and Australia that I can reach out to for lesson ideas or programs to help get our students involved. One of the lessons or one of the programs I wanted to learn about more is the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program,” she said. 


Swartzendruber got the student body at her old school in Bear to participate in that national competition a couple of years ago, and one team was selected to send a project focused on fruit flies into orbit. 


The Spaceflight Experiments Program is designed to have students at individual schools or school districts form groups that propose and design an experiment that could be launched into Earth’s orbit. They’re encouraged to get their hands dirty and think like professional scientists. 


Jeff Goldstein created the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. He said in a way, the program is preparing the next generation of scientists.


“Hopefully some will be interested in going on into STEM careers. It would be nice if they go on to STEM careers that enable space exploration, but that’s really not the goal,” Goldsteain said. “If we can entice students to go on in to medical research and do great things on the frontiers of medicine, we will have done a good job.”


But there’s a catch. Schools need to raise $23,000 to participate. The money covers project materials, transporting the winning projects to and from the International Space Station, and its four-week stay in orbit. To raise the money, Swartzendruber wrote grants and reached out to organizations. Students sold candles.


Once they met their goal, the studentbody at Everett Meredith Middle School developed nearly 100 project proposals.  The top 20 were reviewed by a board of local scientists and engineers, who picked three to send to the national competition. A board at the Smithsonian chose the winner.


One stood out, and is one of just 11 projects nationwide selected to go into space. The project asks the question, “Can fathead minnows grow and develop in a microgravity environment?”


Inspiring students in STEM careers:


Noah Keller has known for a while that he wants to be an engineer when he grows up, and in many ways, he’s already been put on the track for a career in science, technology, engineering or math.


“I always had a natural love for science, that was like my favorite thing to do every day when I was in elementary school,” Keller said. “The only thing I was getting excited for was math or science.”


Now, he’s a budding young scientist and proud minnow parent.


Last year, Keller and his peers Alivia Alessandrini, Kainat Azhar, Olivia Court and Moulai Njie had a class together. When they heard about the competition, they formed a group and started thinking about what kind of proposal they could put together, and they started to spend a lot of time together.


“Every day at lunch we’d go up to our science teacher’s room and just plan and work on how we were gonna do this,” Court said. “And I think on Tuesdays and Thursdays a lot we could stay after school and work on the project. We stayed at school every single day we could, just working on this project.” 


A few ideas - including launching small insects or a taco rocket into space - got kicked around in a process Azar said was not easy.


“We had this packet that our teacher gave us. We had to come up with an experiment, the results, why we were gonna do it. We had to write scientific grade papers,” Azar said.


Finally, they agreed to study minnows. 


Their project soared through various reviews, and in May 2016, the five students found out they won.


“We’re only 12 years old and we’re sending something into space,” Azar said.


Once their project was picked, they gathered preliminary data and settled on the amount of materials they needed. They did additional research into minnows, and went through a safety review with NASA. 


Then, they waited.  The launch was delayed several times - from last fall, to winter, to early spring, and now June 1. Swartzendruber said that’s the nature of space travel.


What will happen to the minnows?


Now, with the launch date set, the project is finally becoming a reality. Their package is on its way with just the right amount of spring water, six minnow eggs and 83 pellets of fish food. 


It also includes a chemical that will ultimately kill the fish and end the experiment before gravity has a chance to corrupt the results. Swartzendruber said if they didn’t kill the fish before they left space, the fish might grow differently as they head back to Earth.


If everything goes according to plan, their minnows will be in space next month. While they’re up there, the team will conduct  a control version of experiment in the classroom for comparison - giving the fish a little bit of food to see how they grow and develop. 


Then just like the experiment in space, they’ll release a chemical to end the fishes’ growth.


The group isn’t sure what to expect. Swartzendruber said they’ve  predicted the minnows will shrink or possibly become disfigured.


But she said whether they’re right or wrong won’t diminish the impact the experience has had on them.


“It gets me happy to think that they’re so excited about their experiment and they’re so excited about science and that they want to pursue something in science later in life and I think that’s just the best goal we can hope for,” Swartzendruber said.

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