High school experiment lands ride on space shuttle

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When Barbara Parker's high school students first heard about lichens, they weren't impressed.

Soon, however, they became experts and created a science experiment so good it was chosen to go into space aboard a NASA shuttle.

Parker, a science teacher at the Delta Cyber Charter School, found the national competition on the Internet hosted by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration program. She told the students in her NASA science class--about the competition.

The incentive was clear: The competition's four winning teams would see their project soar into orbit aboard a space shuttle, and teams would journey to a NASA flight facility to work with NASA scientists.

Parker offered the project to her class as an optional assignment. One group consisted of Delta High School students Heidi Eckman, Crystal Keaster, and Crystal Gefroh, who in turn recruited botany student Rachel Naegele and graphic art student Zach Oliver, also from Delta.

The cyber school was launched as a charter school to teach students across the state over the Internet.

For months, the students devoted after-school time to the project.

The experiment had to fit into a D-shaped, five-liter Space Experiment Module and withstand space shuttle flight temperatures as low as 4 degrees below zero and as high as 140 degrees.

A botany teacher told the group about lichens, durable plant-like organisms that could be stored for long periods of time.

The students found lichens growing in their area, and tested them by heating them in an oven, storing them in NASA vials for three months and otherwise pushing their stamina.

The students developed their proposal. They'd send two groups of lichens into space. They would be treated identically, but one control group would be protected from cosmic radiation by a lead shield, while the other would be exposed to high levels of radiation found outside Earth's atmosphere.

''The whole purpose is to see the effect of cosmic radiation,'' Parker said.

When the team found out in March that their project was one of the four selected, they couldn't believe it.

''When we got the letter, we were all screaming and jumping around the table,'' said Gefroh. ''Truthfully, we didn't think we'd win.''

When the shuttle returns to Earth with its cargo, the students will begin rigorous testing of the organisms to see if the cosmic radiation affected their growth or reproductive abilities. They'll take the specimens to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for initial tests, then bring them to Delta Cyber School to study.

Parker won a $2,500 grant from the Alaska Space Grant Program to buy equipment to use when the project comes home.

In mid-May, the group will prepare the lichens for storage until a flight is scheduled. A month later, four students and Parker will take a trip to the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to meet with scientists.

''The hardest part will be getting my voice to work when I meet them, instead of stuttering out my name,'' Gefroh said.



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