Four Sumter sixth-grade girls spent the summer waiting for their science experiment to return from the International Space Station.
Now in seventh grade, the Alice Drive Middle School students had to overcome incredible challenges to get their project aboard the ISS. It was an effort that impressed former science teacher and school curriculum coordinator Stephanie Barrineau.
“Watching them go from starting as something very 6th-grade science minded to evolving over the course of four to five months of working with them, they amazed me,” she said. “They were just so bright. So inquisitive.”
What began as an attempt to make snow out of sodium polyacrylate turned into the future of growing food in space.
“At first we were going to make fake snow but then we discovered that sodium polyacrylate, which is the stuff in baby diapers, has a lot of uses,” Alyse King said. “So we did a lot of research and then we decided to do germinating seeds in polyacrylate.”
“We were trying to test to see if seeds can germinate in sodium polyacrylate,” Marybrooke Mooneyham said. “When you add water to it, it expands and it can hold temperature and water.”
“The sodium polyacrylate did the work of the soil in outer space,” Alana Garrick said.
The students tested growing radish seeds in the sodium polyacrylate. Because water behaves differently in low-gravity situations, the students were unsure if the sodium polyacrylate would absorb the water.
Just as challenging as the experiment itself was the process it took to get it into outer space.
“Our school decided that we should do an SSEP program, and that’s where basically, everyone in the school or everyone who had a STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Math) elective had to make a project of some sort of thing they could use in space,” Ashlin Farmer said.
SSEP stands for Student Spaceflight Experiment Program. The Alice Drive four competed with students from other schools in the U.S., Canada and Brazil through a rigorous application process.
“Thier expectations were that the children be thinking like adults,” Barrineau said.
One of the challenges was the size of the experiment. Barrineau said it had to be in a cube “not much bigger than a straw.” And the experiment had to stop and start while in space. Once it was ready to go, NASA officials watched them pack and load everything to make sure all of thier procedures were followed and there was no contamination.
Barrineau said she was amazed at how the students accepted and found a solution to each challenge along the way.
“They surprised me,” she said. “They overjoyed me. It was amazing to watch them go through the scientific process and keep forging through and keep finding new avenues.”
Barrineau also is thrilled all four students want to pursue careers in STEM fields: King wants to be a biomedical engineer, Farmer wants to be a nurse, Mooneyham wants to be a veterinarian and Garrick wants to be a doctor.
“It brought us all closer together as a group,” King said. “It was really fun and really exciting when we found out that they did germinate in space.”