Sumter students' ingenuity takes flight in tiny cubes

Bates Middle students’ experiments launched aboard NASA missions

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/26/18

You could describe it as big science in little cubes, but it all equates to engaging more and more young students in the growing career opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

That was on display Friday at Bates Middle School …

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Sumter students' ingenuity takes flight in tiny cubes

Bates Middle students’ experiments launched aboard NASA missions

Posted

You could describe it as big science in little cubes, but it all equates to engaging more and more young students in the growing career opportunities in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

That was on display Friday at Bates Middle School as four students discussed experiments they conducted last spring that were selected for NASA missions.

STEM Coordinator Cindy Seckel brought the international competition, called Cubes in Space, to the school last year. The program gives students ages 11 to 18 the opportunity to design and propose experiments to launch into space or a near-space environment on a NASA sounding rocket or zero-pressure scientific balloon.

The experiments allow students to discover answers to their own questions and also have the purpose of assisting astronauts in space.

Former Bates eighth-grader Breeana Spires, now a ninth-grader at Sumter High School, proposed whether wax could be used as a material to protect and preserve items that travel into outer space. After all, it's used to preserve many items here on Earth and protect them from chipping and cracking in shipping. But could it have the same use in space, or does wax melt up there?

The eighth-grade foursome of Adriana McCallister, Aiko Casey, Tylaiah Archie and Tanyea Mathis - now all ninth-graders, as well - wanted to know if marshmallows could be used as an alternative packaging material to styrofoam. After all, research shows that styrofoam is not recyclable and not biodegradable. If marshmallows could survive a trip to outer space - and not expand or melt up there with the temperature changes - then they may be able to be used as an alternative packaging material and be better for the environment.

A twist to the Cubes in Space project program is that all experiments must fit into a 4-centimeter-by-4-centimeter-by-4-centimeter plastic cube.

The educational nonprofit organization that came up with Cubes in Space to work in tandem with NASA says the program places an emphasis on students' imaginations, creativity, critical thinking and non-traditional problem-solving skills - all critical skills in today's 21st century economy.

Spires' experiment packed tiny wax pieces from birthday candles into a small cube and was launched into space in late June via a NASA sounding rocket from the agency's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. A total of 80 students' projects from across the world were loaded onto the rocket.

The experiments arrived back last week.

Spires' hypothesis was that the wax would melt in outer space, but it didn't. The wax pieces arrived back completely intact. Therefore, wax can be used to preserve items in space.

"They did survive the trip and back," Spires said.

The foursome's marshmallow experiment went up Saturday in a high-altitude balloon from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The balloon will be flying to a target altitude of at least 120,000 feet, where it will experience near-space conditions.

The team built a small tower created with toothpicks and glue. Marshmallows are being used to cushion the tiny structure.

Will it expand or melt?

They'll have to wait two to four weeks for the balloon to land back on the West Coast, said Bates eighth-grade science teacher Angel Daniels.

Parents were in attendance for Friday's student showcase, and many of them were completely unaware of their child's projects until school staff called them earlier this week and asked them to attend.

Archie's mom, Tiffany Lewis, said she was surprised and proud of her daughter's work.

"When I first heard, I was like: 'Wow, NASA and Bates and something going into space,'" Lewis said. "When we were in school, they used to tell us the sky is the limit, but it's really not anymore."