5th-grade East Lyme scientists out of this world

East Lyme Middle School fifth-grader Saige Deveau, 10, works on her team's science experiment Friday.
East Lyme Middle School fifth-grader Saige Deveau, 10, works on her team's science experiment Friday. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - They talk like scientists, throwing around big words like "Lactobacillus acidophilus" and discussing the logistics of fitting an entire science experiment inside a tube no bigger than a glow stick.

But they're mere fifth-graders at East Lyme Middle School, hoping for an opportunity to test an experiment of their choosing in the most exotic place they know: space.

The school is one of 11 nationwide participating in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP), an education initiative that, for a fee, will fly out a student experiment to the International Space Station and return it to Earth six weeks later.

By the middle of this month, a judging panel at NASA in Washington, D.C., will select one project from East Lyme to send to the Space Station.

For the four girls who want to test whether Lactobacillus acidophilus, a bacteria in yogurt, will grow more yogurt when mixed in with whole milk, the experiment is one part scientific curiosity and one part practical application.

Grace Foltz, Saige Deveau, Daven Roberts and Sydney Taylor hope the bacteria will have the same growing abilities in space as it does in Earth, where the girls said Lactobacillus acidophilus can make a serving size of yogurt in five to 10 weeks.

If the bacteria does in fact thrive in microgravity conditions, astronauts could take a little bit of yogurt and a little bit of milk to space to make more yogurt, the girls said. For astronauts used to eating freeze-dried food during missions, that would mean a fresh supply of healthy food within arm's reach.

"It'd be the first unaltered food to go up there," Sydney, 10, said.

The finalists - three teams of fifth-graders - were selected April 19 during a "Race to Space Night," a science fair of sorts for the space projects. Science teachers Glenn PenkoffLidbeck, Samantha Cregger, Deborah Galasso, Joseph Kelley and Linda Nastri learned about SSEP from Superintendent James Lombardo and opened the project up to all fifth- and sixth-graders at the middle school.

Library media specialist Carla Woitovich also helped organize the project, which called for more than six weeks of research and design and required the school to raise close to $20,000 to participate.

SSEP partners with NanoRacks LLC, and the money is used to reserve a slot in NanoRacks' mini-laboratories.

The winning East Lyme team will travel to Cape Canaveral, Fla., in September to watch their experiment be launched in space.

The Florida trip was a big motivating factor for Nick Hyde to want to do well in the "Mold vs. hydrogen peroxide" project he worked on with classmates Brandon Hall, Makaih Olawale and Noah Barnhart.

"I just want to go home and tell my mom that I get to go to Florida 'cuz I'm awesome," Nick joked.

The boys' experiment revolves around the magical cleaning powers of hydrogen peroxide. Using mold, a yam, hydrogen peroxide and a 6.5-inch long Teflon test tube - the vessel for the experiment - the boys will see if hydrogen peroxide is as effective in eliminating mold in space as it is here.

"… because space is dark and the moon has a harshly cold climate that would dampen everything which makes mold have a perfect place to grow," the boys wrote in their proposal.

If successful, "it would benefit astronauts because it would be a convenient way for astronauts to clean the space shuttle," Nick said. Unlike harsh chemicals, hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water and oxygen atoms, making it safe for astronauts to use, they said in their proposal.

To activate the experiment, an astronaut will snap the Teflon tube to mix the contents of the tube with the contents of an even slimmer tube nestled inside, PenkoffLidbeck said.

The third finalist team is also applying the powers of hydrogen peroxide, but in this case to grow mushroom from mushroom tissue, some dead grass and dirt. As hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water and oxygen, Stella Fischer, Rachel Natzel and Jessica Oddi hope the oxygen will help coax the mushroom tissue into growing into a full-size mushroom.

"Like the mushrooms that you would see at Stop & Shop - that's the full size," Stella said.

PenkoffLidbeck and Cregger said they were impressed with the students' dedication to their projects.

"We had kids coming in at recess, after school, to work on their projects," PenkoffLidbeck said.

Though most students won't have the opportunity to see their experiments carried out in space, the hefty price attached to participating in the space program was worth it because it got students excited about science and got them "to think of science as a rewarding possibility," PenkoffLidbeck said.

It's been a rewarding experience for the teachers, too, he said. They were able to convince the school district to purchase some new science books as well as three iPads for students to use for research - a big upgrade from the old computers at the school.

"As teachers, we were challenged beyond what our curriculum called for," he said.

In addition to the winning experiment, two students who won a districtwide art contest to design patches for the SSEP project will have their artwork flown into space. The winners are sixth-grader Hannah Scheyder and Niantic Center School fourth-grader Hannah Goldreich.

j.cho@theday.com

How to help

To help pay for the students' trip to Cape Canaveral, contact PenkoffLidbeck at Glenn.Penkofflidbeck@eastlymeschools.org or call the school at (860) 739-4491.

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