Upper School Students Send Experiment Into Space

This time last year, Collegiate School alum Dr. Charles Marsh Cuttino ‘86 approached the Upper School science department with a proposition: Would students like the opportunity to send an experiment into space via a rocket? The answer was an enthusiastic yes!
Dr. Cuttino serves as regional president of ApolloMD and as chairman of emergency medicine at Henrico Doctors' Forest, Parham, Retreat and Westcreek Hospitals. He also owns the Richmond-based Orbital Medicine Inc., through which he has previously worked with the private aerospace company Blue Origin to launch his research projects into orbit. Through Dr. Cuttino’s connection, Upper School science teacher Dr. Karin Mauer and Middle and Upper School STEAM coordinator Daniel Bartels volunteered to lead a group of Honors Biology students through the process of developing a viable experiment, which will be launched on May 2 at 9:30 a.m. in Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle. 
(Watch the launch here.)

Dr. Mauer and her students began working last summer to develop their experiment with Mr. Bartels’ help. After much discussion and many brainstorming sessions, they decided to explore what happens to simple diffusion across semi-permeable membranes in space, specifically when there is no effect of gravity. Students created drawings of what the experiment would look like, which led to various prototype designs. The entire process proved challenging, Dr. Mauer said.

“They had to come up with the hypothesis, they had to brainstorm and they had to draw a design,” she said. “They experienced the struggle of coming up with a design to answer a question. They experienced that struggle of building it.”

The final product involved food coloring, tubing and a valve that would need to be opened at the exact time when zero gravity occurred, a window of three minutes. Mr. Bartels helped the team design the diffusion chamber and assisted in automating the valve. He helped students write code for an arduino, an open-source electronics platform, which, when attached to a servomotor, would open the valve at the correct instant. The experiment also includes a camera with an LED light so students will have a photo record of the space flight.

“There is so much detail behind this,” Dr. Mauer said. “Every step involved trying, failing, going back to the drawing board and trying again.”

She said she enjoyed the chance to collaborate with Mr. Bartels and expressed her gratitude for his support.

“This would not have happened without his input because I don’t have the training or the engineering skills that he has,” Dr. Mauer said.   

For his part, Mr. Bartels said he enjoyed the project because it was authentic.

“That is the goal in education and it is difficult to pull off,” he said. “This was truly a collaboration in the way scientists work.”

The Collegiate payload, called a nanolab, looks like a small locker and holds the experiment. Students printed the box using Collegiate’s 3D printer. It will be loaded onto the rocket with other payloads of differing sizes. The students named it Cougar 1.

“Just in case we want to do more experiments,” Dr. Mauer said.

Once the launch occurs and Cougar 1 returns to Earth, the process will continue as the students repeat the experiment in the lab on Earth so they have a comparison.

“So we’ll find out if gravity makes a difference or not. Or that we don’t know and we need further evidence,” Dr. Mauer said. “But that’s okay, because the team is really experiencing the scientific method firsthand.”
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