Everybody knows all great science experiments begin with a salad spinner.
Or at least that’s the case with one experiment I saw at St. Mary’s Catholic School last week where students were swirling melted crayons inside a salad spinner to replicate what might happen to melted crayons taking a ride on a rocket.
The experiment was one of three developed by St. Mary’s students that will be launched into space in June.
The experiments submitted by fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders in the school’s Cubes in Space Technology Club were selected from hundreds of proposals worldwide to fly aboard a sounding rocket to be launched from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia on June 21.
The research rocket will travel approximately 75 miles above the Earth and fly for seven or eight minutes before splashing down in the ocean.
The microgravity it experiences for several minutes allows scientists — in this case, students — to analyze the effect of space conditions on their experiments once they are recovered after splashdown.
“I’m just bowled over that we even had one, but to have three of them,” said Peter Tlusty, the technology teacher who sponsors the after-school club. “For a middle school kid, that’s quite a thing.”
Cubes in Space is a program administered by idoodledu inc., in collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility, NASA Langley Research Center and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium.
Its mission is to ignite the imagination and problem-solving abilities of students ages 11 to 18 by providing the opportunity to design and propose experiments to launch into space or a near-space environment aboard rockets or balloons. There is no cost to the students.
There were an estimated 450 proposals (for 80 slots or, in reality, clear 4-centimeter cubes) from 120 educators around the world for the June 21 launch of the sounding rocket.
Winning proposals came from students in 13 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Australia, India, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, said Amber Agee-DeHart, founder of Cubes in Space and president of idoodledu inc.
“We are thrilled to have Virginia schools participating,” Agee-DeHart wrote in an email. The program is based in Virginia Beach.
Two other Virginia groups, one from Stafford County and another from Hampton, also submitted proposals that were selected.
Agee-DeHart said the program’s evaluation committee conducts a “blind review” of all applications, not knowing the names or locations of the students and schools. The proposals go through a process that involves feedback, revisions and resubmissions before final selections are made.
It is not rare to have a school wind up with more than one cube, Agee-DeHart said, but Tlusty and his students are feeling pretty special about their good fortune.
When photographer Bob Brown and I arrived at St. Mary’s in western Henrico County, students were clustered around their three experiments that will be carried aboard the rocket. Their tasks are two-fold: See if their theories really work and then make them fit in the confined space of the cubes. The scene might be described as genial chaos.
At one point, a shriek went up from a distant corner of the room.
“Is that a shriek of pain or excitement?” Tlusty hollered as he was working with another group of students.
“Joy,” came a jubilant voice, some element of an experiment having gone well.
“If it’s joy,” Tlusty replied, “it’s OK.”
Isaac Tan and Jake Janus told us about the “old-school accelerometer” that will measure and record G-forces on the flight (theirs is made of fishing weights, fishing line, a spring, a syringe and paper clips).
Another group was working on a project that it hopes will use the spin of the rocket to generate enough electricity to light an LED bulb by turning a tiny electric motor. The bulb will be wrapped in photo paper to record if it was lighted in flight.
Then there was the salad spinner.
The students want to create an abstract piece of art by using the high temperatures in the nose cone of the rocket and G-forces to melt crayons inside the cube that will be lined with colored paper.
To practice, the students created little cardboard boxes, filled them with crayons warmed with a heat gun, then taped the boxes shut — and sent them for a ride in the salad spinner.
Vivian Basinet explained she came up with the crayon idea because she was trying to think of “something more artsy,” which also appealed to Ana Reveles, and the two of them went to work.
During the run-throughs last week, the cardboard boxes apparently were not tightly taped each time and, after a number of practice spins, it looked like the Saturn of salad spinners with rings of various colors encircling the bowl.
“My salad’s going to taste horrible tonight,” Tlusty said with a laugh.
“Mr. T,” as the students call him, is in his first year at St. Mary’s. He started teaching years ago and then went in a different direction — working as a musician and furniture-maker and running a home improvement contracting business for more than 20 years.
He returned to teaching and became interested in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and discovered programs provided by NASA for professional development, which is where he learned about the Cubes in Space program.
Now, his students are preparing their work to go into space.
“I love allowing them the freedom to explore and do in our tech club,” Tlusty said about the day we visited as the students anticipated working with the cubes, which had recently arrived. “The students were so excited. It was neat watching their excitement grow throughout the day.”
Tlusty and several of his students plan to be at Wallops next month for the launch, which should be quite a kick. But then, as Tlusty said, the whole process has been fun.
“The kids building stuff with their hands,” he said. “It’s just tremendous.”