A student team figuring out how to use a force sensor.

SAMOHI — When someone is called a “space cadet,” it typically means that they have difficulty grasping reality or that they lack intelligence.

That cannot be said about a group of students who as eighth graders at Lincoln Middle School developed an experiment involving Silly Putty that is scheduled to be blasted into space on Sunday.

The student scientists’ experiment with the non-Newtonian fluid, known to most as a rubber-like toy made popular in the 1950s, will hitch a ride aboard Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which is loaded with food and clothes for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The launch is scheduled for 8:35 p.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and the budding scientists couldn’t be more excited.

“It’s once in a lifetime,” said Alexander Soohoo, 14, on Thursday over a plate of pepperoni pizza at Santa Monica High School, where he is a freshman.

Soohoo was joined by his partners on the project: Francis Abastillas, 14; Dean Chien, 15; Matilda Loughmiller, 14; and Roman Valentine, 14. All but Valentine are now attending Samohi. The crew spent roughly two weeks together over the spring developing the experiment.

“We worked a lot of hours on this so it’s cool to finally know that it’s going up,” said Valentine, who now attends Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnate. “It’s crazy to think that what we were doing at Lincoln, someone is going to be doing in space.”

Astronauts will attempt to make Silly Putty in zero gravity using materials provided by the students. Once completed, the experiment, along with over 20 others from schools across the country, will be shipped back to Earth and the students will gather and study its properties to see how it differs, if at all, from regular Silly Putty.

Will it bounce higher or stretch further? Will its color be different or its viscosity? And, perhaps most importantly, will kids still be able to spread it over a newspaper and copy their favorite comic strips? That is if kids still read comics.

The Silly Putty project is part of the Students Spaceflight Experiments Program, meant to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers. The education initiative gives 300 to 1,000 students across a community the ability to design and propose real experiments to fly in low Earth orbit. The students compete against one another to win one of the coveted spots aboard the International Space Station.

As part of the program, students have been immersed in every facet of research, from defining investigations to designing experiments, writing proposals, and submitting to a formal NASA review for selection of flight experiments. Not only does it challenge a student’s understanding of scientific principles, it also tests their ability to articulate their ideas clearly.

“I have to slap myself upside the head quite a bit because we keep calling them kids. These are student researchers,” said Jeff Goldstein with the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which helped launch the program in 2010. “They are scientists in every sense of the word.”

Getting kids interested in math and science has become a mission of many education advocates, who have called for reforms to the education system to help America compete with the rest of the world.

A 2009 study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development found that U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science, behind nations like China, Singapore, South Korea and Finland. The fear is that if American students don’t improve, they will be left behind.

It’s programs like the one Lincoln Middle School participated in that are trying to turn the tide. Marianna O’Brien, a physical science teacher at Lincoln who worked with the young scientists on their experiments, said she noticed a difference in her students, who at first were unfamiliar with the International Space Station but are now talking about becoming engineers or astronauts.

It helped that in recent months space exploration has been the topic of much discussion with the Mars rover landing and the retirement and Los Angeles fly-over of the Endeavour space shuttle last month. O’Brien and fellow science teacher Carol Wrabel used the two events in their lesson plans.

“I think the excitement of it all and the awareness of what was happening helped make science interesting, engaging and fun for them,” O’Brien said. “Those are the things we need to make sure students stay in science.”

Several teachers challenged the school board last month to create a task force to enhance math and science curriculum.

“I just hope this inspires other kids to realize that science is within their reach,” O’Brien said.

It seems it has. The students who developed the Silly Putty experiment seem as comfortable talking about the latest pop culture craze as they do the future of NASA and space exploration. They spoke about the need to keep exploring and identifying new worlds, just in case Earth gets too crowded. They also lamented the retirement of the space shuttle program, something their parents grew up with, but realized that a change has to be made so that science can evolve.

“I don’t see it as a death, but more of a transition,” said Abastillas about the end of the shuttle program. “Now the focus has shifted to interplanetary travel.”

“Kind of like passing the torch,” Soohoo added.

Perhaps these students will carry it.

 

kevinh@smdp.com