BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Baby Bloodsuckers in Outer Space experiment, developed by a group of seventh grade students from Columbia Middle School as part of the Student Spacelift Experiment Project (SSEP), was chosen by a panel from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. to travel to outer space to the International Space Station in October 2014. The students that participated in the winning experiment are Julia Ellis, Kasia Kapustka, Gia LaSalle, Bianca Urbina and Lilyana Walsh.

 “SSEP is about introducing real science to our children and if you give them a chance to be scientists, stand back and be amazed,” stated Dr. Jeff Goldstein, creator of SSEP and NCESSE Center Director in the SSEP website.

Students were asked to investigate a very real scientific problem answering the following question: What physical, chemical, or biological system would I like to explore with gravity seemingly turned off for a period of time, as a means of assessing the role of gravity in that system?

Sign Up for E-News

The district embraced the SSEP and created a myriad of avenues to get the students involved. There were 650 students in grades six through 12 that were fully engaged and participated in 150 group experiments through their science class or within clubs at Governor Livingston High School and Columbia Middle School. 

"They can do this type of work, and they can achieve it," said Jim Flakker, Gov. Livingston science teacher and SSEP Coordinator.  "It is always fun to witness how the students respond to these challenges. You think it will be too difficult and they respond to the challenges," said Flakker.

"I'm really happy that we have a group of all girls. In a field that is underrepresented by women-- to encourage the next generation of girls to grow up with this interest in science and technology, it couldn't be better. I couldn't be more pleased."

"An incredible amount of work has gone into the project. Every time we went to them and asked for a revision, the groups would respond with great ideas and never shut down," said Flakker.  

Pamela Wilczynski the Columbia Middle School SSEP Program Coordinator spoke proudly of the winning group of Columbia students. "They worked every single day with revision after revision," said Wilczynski. "They stepped right up and did it. A group of 12 year old girls -- aspiring scientists.  It promotes science is such a great way, especially among females." 

"The level of sophistication involved in the SSEP speaks to the magnitude and level of education our children receive in the Berkeley Heights school district and their science program," said Michele Soto, whose daughter, Julia Ellis, is a member of the group that worked on the chosen experiment. 

This opportunity was brought to the Berkeley Heights district through the effort of Flakker and Susan Rembetsy, District Science Supervisor from an idea introduced by Board of Education member Doug Reinstein. Funding was made available through sponsorships from businesses and organizations including The Summit Medical Group Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, KPMG, The Linde Group, The Berkeley Heights PTOs and the Berkeley Heights Education Foundation.

The participating groups of students designed their experiments over a 9 week period handing in 9 separate assignments.  "This project had two components: the scientific experiment design process - what is that question that you want to study. On top of that, how do you design an experiment within the confines of what we have to offer?" said Flakker. "The students designed the engineering and the experiment to answer the question they put out there." 

The chosen experiment will be in outer space for six weeks. The astronauts can not collect data and they can not make any observations. The only interaction is their ability to open up a clamp on the tube to mix. The students will be limited to five operation days they can interact with the experiment said Flakker. "So, the experiment had to be designed within these confines." The students will collect the data and analyze the results once it arrives back on Earth and is shipped to Berkeley Heights.   The group will present their results at a national conference at the  Smithsonian. 

A review panel consisting of local scientists, engineers and educators helped to narrow the 150 entries down to six finalists.  The six finalists were sent to the Smithsonian where the three finalists were determined, ultimately choosing Baby Bloodsuckers in Outer Space as the winning experiment.

Last Tuesday evening, the public was invited to view an exhibition of posters from the 150 groups that participated in the SSEP program.  The three finalists provided a presentation prior to the announcement of the winning experiment. The two other finalists are: 

Helium Absorption in Single Walled Carbon Nanotubes by Sarah Cohen, Emily Herring, Ishla Mehrotra, Shree Mehrotra and Zoya To.

Reactivation and Virulence of Human Papillomavirus Type 16 in Microgravity and Elevated Radiation by Amanda Bostwick, Andrew Clark, Alexander Ju, Duylinh Vu and Christopher Weeks.  

"In combination with the experiment contest, we embarked on a mission patch contest to go along with the experiment program," said Rembetsy. "This contest mission was to engage more of the school and local community into the project."

Over 1,000 students from the district participated in the patch design contest that symbolized the community's adventure in STEM education on the high frontier.   A panel chose a list of finalists to be voted on by the community.  The winning patches were designed by Ryan Matthews of William Woodruff School and Erin Lee of Columbia Middle School. The patches will fly aboard the International Space Station as part of the mission. 

"I think the SSEP went really well for a pilot voyage. It was worth every bit of the work because of the reaction of the students," said Rembetsy. "All of the teachers supported it."

Note from the SSEP Website: The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) was launched in June 2010 by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in strategic partnership with NanoRacks, LLC. Designed as a model U.S. national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative, the program gives typically 300+ students across a participating community the ability to design and propose real micro gravity experiments to fly in low Earth orbit (experiments conducted in a “weightless” environment), first aboard the final flights of the Space Shuttle, and then on the International Space Station (ISS) – America’s newest National Laboratory. SSEP is suitable for students in pre-college grades 5-12, 2-year community colleges, and 4-year colleges and universities.