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Minnehaha Academy gets ready for space

Why on earth would a group of 16 teenagers work late on a Friday night in a science lab at Minnehaha Academy? Why, to send an experiment into outer space, of course!

Minnehaha Academy team members work on an experiment which will eventually end up on the International Space Station. Photo provided by Minnehaha Academy

“To learn from mentors and work with them side-by-side on designing this project is a fantastic experience.”

According to seniors Ashley Lundeen and Nick Cochrane, student project leaders, the Minnehaha Academy team is designing an experiment that will launch on the International Space Station (ISS) in March 2013. Testing an experiment aboard the ISS is a rare opportunity that most professional scientists will never have, and quite a coup for Minnehaha Academy. It is the first high school in the Midwest — and one of only eight participating schools in the nation — to have a team of students design and build an experiment for testing on the ISS.
“The ISS project takes learning far beyond the confines of a classroom,” agreed Lundeen and Cochrane. “Designing a sophisticated experiment, being mentored by science professionals, and capitalizing on our teammates’ strengths to solve problems have taught us much more than we ever could have learned from a textbook.”

It is out of this world

Minnehaha’s ISS Project Team members were selected by application last spring, and spent weeks of their summer learning basic computer programming and electronic circuitry. When school began in August, the project took off in earnest. The team researched possible experiments and chose an investigation of polymer formation in microgravity. Polymers are used in making many everyday materials including plastic bottles, nylon, paint, adhesives, diapers, Spandex, and credit cards.
Junior Hugh Mayo explained: “There’s gravity on the space station — just not much of it. So we decided to study how polymers coalesce in space at different temperatures. We want to see if the drying polymers form differently in space than on Earth.”
The real-world applications using pre-made polymers in space are endless, Mayo said, but one of the most practical uses is for “fixing things during space travel.”

Spending quality time with professional scientists

Minnehaha Academy’s “big team” is divided into three “small teams” working on mechanical, software, and prototype testing and design. Six adult scientists from the fields of engineering, software, and project development volunteer to mentor these small specialty teams. School science faculty members Sam Terfa and Nancy Cripe serve as co-mentors for the ISS project.
“To learn from mentors and work with them side-by-side on designing this project is a fantastic experience,” said senior student software specialist Kendra Hollenbeck.
Part of the challenge of the polymer experiment is a size constraint: the entire experiment must fit within a 2-inch by 2-inch by 4-inch microlab.
The experiment is scheduled for blastoff on March 7, 2013, for a two-month stay at the International Space Station. NASA astronauts will send data from Minnehaha’s microlab back to Earth several times a week and students will be able to analyze their experiment’s progress.
ISS team member Maddy Wong joked, “Our experiment is sort of like watching paint dry … but in space!

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