A few weeks ago, my son came home from school asking if he could work on an after school project that would potentially let him send a science experiment to space. He and a couple of other kids had been selected to participate in a program wherein students from fifth grade up through high school design experiments to be performed on the International Space Station. The finalists actually get to send their experiment up to the ISS to be performed. Of course we said yes!
I attended the first after-school meeting, and one of the kids already had a long list of ideas for what kinds of experiments they might perform. My son proposed something having to do with snake venom and blood coagulation in microgravity, but I think his interests lay more in the appeal of snake venom than in scientific inquiry. It was clear to me from that meeting that his teacher was going to guide but not take over the project. This would be a student project. My son’s experiment would not likely find its way to the ISS (and, lest this come off as a build up to some neat announcement, I’ll go ahead and say: his group didn’t win).
The experiment design is very constrained because it’s expensive to send stuff up into space. Winning projects get a special sort of tube subdivided into three compartments with little gates that can be opened to expose items in the different compartments to one another. So you could put snake venom in one end, blood in the other, and instruct the astronauts to open the gates to join the two, and then observe the impact of microgravity on coagulation compared to what happens in a control setup back home. So you have to design your experiment around these physical constraints and with the understanding that pretty much all the astronauts will do is follow simple instructions and set the tube aside. They won’t take measurements or do other formal observations, and your experiment design has to factor this in.
My son and his team met one or two other times after school and came together to work on the project over lunch a few times. They wound up settling on seeing if microgravity affects the behavior in fire ants that causes them to clump together when they find themselves in water. They tested the clumping behavior locally and devised a plan for testing it in space. They wrote and submitted their experiment design and made a tri-fold display for presentation at an event one night this week. It was charmingly clear from their display that the teacher had let the kids do most of the work. There was a classic elementary school bulletin board border (with the wavy edges) around the edges of the tri-fold display, and sheets of paper were glued to the board without utmost tidiness. Other groups had much fancier (or at least much tidier) displays. It was clear that some of the other elementary school teacher sponsors had had a much bigger hand in the development of the experiments.
A fifth grade team won, beating out a high school team composed partially of some of my wife’s past brilliant students who were basically testing out like a cure for cancer. I don’t remember what the winning experiment was, but even its title sounded advanced far beyond what one tends to cover in pre-college science. Part of me was inclined to sneer about the teacher basically doing all the work for them, which was unfair to e.g. the high school teams who submitted work with a lot less teacher involvement. I imagine the winning students still learned a lot, though, and that, in the end, is what’s important about this kind of activity. It was tempting to wish that my son had had a better opportunity here with a teacher who’d set them up better for success, but I actually wound up feeling really glad that she let them do their own thing. There’s value in learning really sophisticated stuff with heavier involvement from an instructor, but I think there’s also a lot of value in being given some loose constraints and freedom to succeed or fail on your own, and where I’ve landed is that I’d rather my son have the sort of experience he had, with more ownership of the project, than that he win with the project more firmly directed by the teacher.
My son was really excited at the prospect of winning and getting to send an experiment up into space, but he also took the loss in stride (I was worried his hopes were too high), and I was proud of him.