December 19, 2016

Reaching New Heights in Experiential Education

In summer of 2017, a science experiment designed by Oakwood students will be conducted by an astronaut onboard the International Space Station as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). Below is the first installment covering our community’s countdown to lift-off. Join us as we follow this exciting journey during the first year of the Oakwood Space Program, an incredible educational opportunity for our 5th–12th graders!


Miller and Sophie, two Oakwood 7th graders, have spent a lot of time this fall thinking about something that most of us have almost certainly never considered. In meeting after meeting, all within the parameters of Kari Bosworth’s science class, they’ve repeatedly refined their musings, finally arriving at the following carefully constructed scientific question: How would a lima bean grow under conditions of weightlessness?

In Kari’s other 7th grade science class, students Kaipo and Gabrielle have also been working on the clearest way to test a question of their own: Is Lysol Brand Concentrate Disinfectant effective at inhibiting the growth of E. coli in space?

And in Melanie Magdaleno’s 8th grade science class, students Finn, Koa, and Noah have devised a method to find the answer to their particular inquiry: How would the absence of gravity affect the amount of hairs that grow on plant roots in a hydroponic growing environment?

These questions, as esoteric as they may first seem, are not mere theoretical ponderings of middle school students. Rather, they are the driving research problems behind three experiments designed in Oakwood classrooms this fall, all with one common goal: to test the effects of microgravity—more commonly known as weightlessness —on normally earth-bound systems.

Now, all these kids need is an ideal place to test their ideas—that is, a place without gravity.

Enter the Oakwood Space Program!

What is the Oakwood Space Program?

If you ask middle school science teacher Kari Bosworth, you’ll hear that “It’s the best way to learn science.” According to elementary school teacher Andrew Lappin, “It’s a totally unreal opportunity.” For 7th grader Gabrielle, it’s the thing that “rekindled [her] passion for science.”

Such accolades do capture the excitement that this program has brought to our campuses this fall, but what the Oakwood Space Program really is can best be described as an experiential learning experiment design competition. It is a chance for students in grades 5–12 to experience the real-world scientific process of developing one’s ideas from the brainstorming phase through the research and experimental design stage and, ultimately, to the actual testing of their hypotheses. And, what elevates this program to its out-of-this-world status and makes the microgravity dreams of these three student groups more than far-fetched aspirations is the planned culmination of this program: the selection of one Oakwood experiment to be conducted in low earth orbit in the summer of 2017.

Thanks to Oakwood being chosen as one of only 21 learning communities in the U.S. and Canada to participate in Mission 11 of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), a year-long national STEM education program that culminates in student experiments being tested by astronauts on the International Space Station, this dream will become a reality for either the lima bean, the Lysol, or the hydroponics group. Last month, these three scientific inquiries were announced as Oakwood’s finalist submissions that will now vie for inclusion in the SSEP mission.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata of Japan holding a Fluid Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab during a 2014 SSEP mission.

And, while the three proposed experiments to test these questions are now on their way to Washington D.C. to be considered by the SSEP Step 2 Review Panel for Oakwood’s one guaranteed Mission 11 spot, the process of arriving at these three submissions to be considered as our school’s potential representative experiment has made for an exciting fall semester for Oakwood science students and their teachers.

Launching the Program

The journey to this extraordinary opportunity all started in April of this year when Oakwood’s Director of Experiential Education Phu Tranchi submitted our school’s application to participate in SSEP, inspired by the organization’s commitment to real-world learning. He says,

I believe that in order to learn science, you must do science.

“You must go through the process yourself to understand the true nature of scientific investigation,” he adds, “which is totally oversimplified by the traditionally taught scientific method. The experience of making observations and testing your ideas must be authentic, not prescribed. You need to interface with the subject of curiosity yourself, collecting real data and analyzing them to draw original, evidence-based conclusions.”

SSEP offers students a seat at the table of this authentic scientific process, and when Phu learned in July that Oakwood’s application for Mission 11 had been accepted, he spearheaded the Oakwood Space Program as an educational experimental design competition. Since the opening of school this year, the program has been operating as part of the curriculum in grade 5–8 classrooms where the students have been working on their proposals in groups. Grade 9–12 students also had the opportunity to submit proposals, working outside of class time under the guidance and mentoring of science teachers.

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station.

Elementary school science teacher Andrew felt a truly contagious enthusiasm about this unique learning experience right from the beginning. “The fact that an experiment that has its origins here at our school will actually be conducted by astronauts aboard the ISS is just crazy,” he said. “It’s so exciting for us and for the kids, and who could possibly imagine a better start to the Oakwood Space Program?”

Back in September, in classrooms on both campuses, Andrew and the 8 other teachers charged with bringing their students through the process of proposal creation asked their students the following question posed by SSEP:

What physical, chemical, or biological system would [your group] 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?

With this query in mind, the students then faced the challenge of designing their microgravity experiments. Meanwhile the teachers constructed their lessons to allow the students to experience hands-on scientific design procedures that mirror the way that real-world scientists bring an idea from the realm of theory to actual execution. With the parameters set and students all briefed on the ultimate goal of the challenge, the kids got to work, starting from large amorphous ideas and eventually refining them down to concrete, succinct proposals with a deadline of early November in their minds as they worked.

Eighth grader Finn, a student in the finalist group on hydroponics, said, “All good science experiments start with a good idea and finding the idea was hard, but since we’ve found that, the execution has actually been really fun. We have had a great work ethic in our group and we had all of these moving parts at the beginning, but they’ve come together really nicely. It has been so exciting to be part of something so cool, so interesting, and so new. I’ve always liked science but this has made it definitely one of my best science years so far.”

Finn is not alone in his praise for the space competition, a program that, in many ways, seems like it was designed with Oakwood in mind.

SSEP + Oakwood = A Natural Partnership

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. As one of SSEP’s selected schools, Oakwood has modeled its space program competition in the spirit of this national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education initiative. SSEP’s guidelines state that the program “is designed to empower the student as scientist, and within the real-world context of science that is far more than exploration through inquiry … Science is more than a way of thinking and interacting with the natural world. Science is more than a book of knowledge. Science is also a complex social landscape filled with challenges, and the need for multi-faceted and successful communication with one’s peers. SSEP is about introducing real science to our next generation of scientists and engineers.”

SSEP’s focus on authentic learning experiences is a natural fit for Oakwood. With hands-on educational experiences at the heart of so many lessons on both the Elementary School and Secondary School campuses, the idea of bringing the curriculum to life is deeply ingrained in the way that our teachers seek to “develop intellectual integrity and curiosity, insight, and imagination” (Oakwood Statement of Philosophy). It is, therefore, this dual SSEP/Oakwood philosophy that has guided Phu and Oakwood’s fearless team of science teachers this fall as they’ve shepherded this inaugural year of the Oakwood Space Program.

As middle school science teacher Melanie Magdaleno points out, part of the success of bringing this program to our school comes from this harmony of Oakwood’s and SSEP’s philosophies. “There are a lot of things on the SSEP website that can help teachers feel comfortable with this type of learning by pointing out how it is beneficial,” says Melanie, “but we came into this program knowing that the hands-on, trial and error aspect is exactly what we were looking for, so we didn’t need much convincing. The balance for me as a teacher is to give them enough guidelines, but not to restrict them by giving them so many rules at the beginning that they feel stifled.”

Kari agrees that this dynamic style of teaching in which you both guide your students towards ideas while artfully allowing them to independently find their own inventive paths is one that Oakwood teachers welcome.

“It’s the most challenging way to teach, but it’s the most rewarding,” she adds. “I wouldn’t change it. You see the process, and you see the results, and you see the students grow and learn. As a teacher you appreciate their experience and you try to inspire them. And, what else could you want as a teacher?”

Real Science, Real Challenges

For all the inspiration that the program brought with it, the other aspect of experiential learning—the part that mirrors real-world challenges and the trial and error of risk taking—was also present as the students settled in to create their proposals.

As Melanie shared, “It’s a long process and doing background research on things is tedious, but it’s very real, so there were definitely ups and downs for the kids, which we don’t necessarily see as a bad thing. By learning this way, they don’t get that false sense that answers are always immediate. This work can be boring, and there were days when they wanted it to be done. But, this is what real science is like, and they got to see that.”

Kari also believes that the Oakwood Space Program’s rigorous approach, which makes students ultimately responsible for idea refinement and project execution, is invaluable. “This way of learning is much better than having the students just reading from the textbook. They actually have the experience of creation and of student ownership. At the beginning, they started on this very high note but soon realized that this process was a roller coaster ride. Sometimes we dream too big and that’s ok. That’s when they figure out that they need to learn to manipulate things to fit the parameters. I congratulated my students the whole way. I pushed them and they pushed back in the best way and overcame so many challenges. They experienced real science and at the end, they were so proud.”

Working in groups, the kids had not only the challenges that any act of real-world scientific collaboration brings, but also a whole other set of unique challenges that the SSEP parameters require. First, the experiments have to be able to be conducted by astronauts who are hundreds of miles away, orbiting the planet. That means that the explanations to the astronauts who will carry out their experiments must be precisely articulated and meticulously constructed.

Second, the experiments need to be bold in ideas, but safe in execution. “There was one group of 5th graders,” Andrew recalls, “that wanted to see if things sublimate—go from a solid to a gas—in microgravity. This is a great question, but they wanted to test it with iodine and zinc pellets. But, this creates a reaction that you just can’t have onboard the International Space Station.” Since this combination could produce toxic fumes that would prove harmful to the testing environment, he sent them back to the drawing board and, “After a long search, they found a substitute: naphthalene. Mothballs. That was perfect. You could put a mothball in the tube, mass it before it goes up into space, mass it again when it comes back to see if there is any loss in mass. Sometimes you have to kind of guide them in different ways, but we’re really not allowed to give them ideas. They have to figure all of this out on their own.”

A third challenge came in the requirement that these experiments should somehow be designed to help the scientific community at large. Student finalist Miller reported on this aspect of the project, “My partner and I put a lot of thought into what we would choose to be sent up to the space station. It would have to be extremely useful in space, while also having a large body of research on it that we could use to back up our claim. This was one of the hardest parts of building our proposal, but we ended up proud of our choice: lima beans. They’re small and easy to transport, and like any other plant, can produce oxygen, something needed by astronauts.”

Andrew Lappin holding an FME.

One of the greatest limitations faced by these student scientists is one of sheer size, or rather lack of size, of the container in which their experiments must fit. “When Phu first told us about this program we were imagining something like a shoe box,” said Andrew, “so you can imagine how we had to readjust when we saw what we were really working with.” The container, or FME (Fluids Mixing Enclosure) is very small, measuring just 7 inches long and with a ½ inch diameter. This size restriction meant that the students needed to figure out ways to make their big ideas take small forms.

Another challenge, perhaps the most significant, involved students getting comfortable with the idea that they wouldn’t be able to necessarily see the details of their experiment as it was being conducted. While the students here on Oakwood’s campus will have contact, through their written instructions, with the astronauts onboard the ISS, they won’t have the visibility of real-time reactions like one might see in a science lab. Therefore, the proposals must be constructed in such a way that they have a before and an after to measure. “This is an abstract idea for students,” said Melanie, “and I can’t tell you how many times I said, ‘Your idea is really good, but . . . what are you going to measure?’”

Challenges such as these were worth it in the end, says 8th grader Noah. “Doing science like this has really helped me with my confidence,” he said. “Now I know that nothing is so hard that it can’t be done. This has been a great opportunity.”

Seventh grader Gabrielle agrees, “There were certain complications and times I felt like, ‘I give up, I’m just not going to do this,’ and there were other times when I thought, ‘Wow, this could really go somewhere,’ but it wasn’t necessarily a party the whole way through . . . but to see that it all worked out, it really inspired me.”

Curiosity & Enthusiasm at the Elementary School

Despite the fact that all three of the finalists in this inaugural year of the Oakwood Space Program hail from our middle school, the enthusiasm about this opportunity was perhaps most palpably felt in elementary school classrooms as evidenced at this year’s Halloween parade, which had an outer space theme. Teachers in astronaut costumes were a clear sign of the excitement around the space program. As the space suits paraded around campus, 5th and 6th grade students channeled their Space Station dreams into serious, scientifically sound proposals of their own.

How will the condition of microgravity affect toothpaste emulsification? How will it change the way a marigold grows? Will the carbonic and pH levels in a can of Coke be altered once it leaves our atmosphere? And, what will happen to brie cheese on the space station?

Questions such as these were at the center of experiments designed by elementary school students. According to their teachers, the levels of creativity expressed in the 5th and 6th grade proposals come as no surprise to anyone who has worked with students this age.  Andrew says, “Fifth and sixth graders don’t filter. They just dream everything at this point and don’t have the same kind of blocks that older students and adults have. A lot of us think of an idea and then say to ourselves, ‘No, that wouldn’t work because of reason x, y, z, whereas an elementary school student says, ‘Yeah, let’s try that.’”

Students in grade 5 collaborating on their SSEP experiments.
A sampling of 5th and 6th grade proposals.

“I was quite impressed with the depth and the curiosity,” agrees elementary school teacher Earl Hunter. “Once they had the foundations of experimental design and then some core chemistry content, their thoughts went in so many different directions and that was allowed in this very open process.”

Even though the elementary students knew they were up against a lot of students that had more science background than they did, their teachers report that they stayed very optimistic about the quality of their ideas. Fifth grader Julia, who credits the Oakwood Space Program for turning science into one of her favorite subjects, is taking a long view on the competitive aspect of the program. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the elementary school students. If we stay at Oakwood until 12th grade we’ll have the most experience, because we’re the youngest grade and it’s the first year, so we get the most experience doing it.”

According to the elementary school teachers, the program is not only a great opportunity for the students, but also for the Oakwood elementary science curriculum. Due to the fact that the students couldn’t reasonably put together qualifying proposals without first understanding the basics of experimental design, the 5th and 6th grade science classes kicked off the year learning the ins and outs of constructing a hypothesis, using a control group, and designing the details of scientific experimentation.

“The thing is,” stresses Andrew, “Even if they don’t retain every single part of this, that’s OK. They’re going to be doing this for the rest of their scientific careers. We had to move a few things around in the curriculum so we could front end experimental design, but it makes sense to do it this way.”

The importance of these lessons seem to have really sunk in for students like 5th grader Angie, who admits, “This project changed my perspective on science. It’s not all about explosions and those kinds of experiments. You have to know the basics before you get to the exciting part. You need to know how it’s going to work. The astronaut needs the directions. It all matters.”

This kind of lesson is priceless, as is the dual campus teamwork that allowed this program to nurture such diverse age groups as those found in 5th and 12th grade.

Choosing the Three Finalists

On Thursday November 3, 81 Oakwood Space Program proposals were submitted by teams of students from 5-12 grade. This extraordinary collection of proposals was then reviewed by a judging panel comprised of professional scientists, some of whom are Oakwood alumni, that was tasked to narrow the field down to three. According to Phu, “The top proposals stood out for the presentation of their research, focus on the experimental question, and detailed experimental design. The three finalist proposals were further distinguished by their plans for experimental and ground control analysis, and overall communication and articulation of their experiment.”

Phu Tranchi announcing one of the three finalist proposals in Melanie Magdaleno’s 8th grade science classroom.

During the week before Thanksgiving break, Phu visited the classrooms of the three finalist groups to deliver the news. His announcement was met with shock and joy by the winners and cheers from their classmates. Perhaps the most surprised of all was 7th grade student Kaipo, who was part of the Lysol experiment group. With a proposal now being examined by the SSEP Step 2 Review Panel in Washington D.C., he admits, “I didn’t think we had a chance. I knew we were going up against high schoolers and they’ve had a lot more science than we have, and that was stressful and scary. But after we came up with our idea and I knew it was a good one, I got more hopeful.” On the day when the winners were announced, he was thrilled to learn that not only had his group made it to the top three . . . but so had his brother’s group! “My brother Koa, in eighth grade, is in the hydroponics group and they were also in the top three of the competition, so that made the results even more surprising!”

Kaipo’s partner Gabrielle had a similar reaction. “Before participating in this program, I was kind of starting to lose interest in science, and thought that’s definitely not what I want to do. And then when we started the program, I didn’t think that we were going to get selected as one of the final three, and I was just honestly shocked that we did. But this has made me regain my interest in science and it’s made me a lot more passionate about it.”

Miller, a seventh grader who was a part of the lima bean group admits, “When I first found out about the program, it felt like a near unreachable goal. It was a real chance to change the world, and everything beyond it. This meant I would have to work really hard to succeed. When I found out my experiment was chosen as a finalist to be sent to the space station, I was shocked.”

One Small Step for Oakwood, One Giant Leap for Experiential Education

With the proposals now out of Oakwood’s collective hands, the three groups anxiously await news of which one will ultimately serve as Oakwood’s representative experiment. Not only will this group enjoy the satisfaction of getting their ideas actually launched into space and tested, they will also get to travel to Florida to watch the actual launch first hand as we cheer them on from California. As 5th grader Leni put it:

It’ll be the Oakwood experiment up there, and it will be exciting for all of us no matter whose it is.

Regardless of whether we will all be glued to the fate of the lima bean, the disinfectant, or the plant hairs, there is one sure winner here: experiential education.

As Phu said to the 7th and 8th grade classrooms on the day when he announced the three finalists, “What tremendous work you have all done. It was a tremendous undertaking, and you have been doing the purest form of science. I’m so impressed by the work I see you doing, and how you envisioned and executed this challenge given the major constraints of this little tube. I’m so thrilled by your perseverance, and I want to let you know that the whole point of this is to allow you guys to have these types of learning experiences that are engaging, that are real, and that come from you. What I want to see is more of this type of learning, where you can get into it and pursue your own questions and your own ideas, because they are valid and you guys are making a difference. Awesome work.”


This story was followed in the following installments. Click to read about the announcement of the finalists and the launch.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program [or SSEP] is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre- college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.