Watch above: WUFT reporter Elena Barrera produced this video report.
OCALA, Fla. – What started out as a group project turned into one middle school student getting her science experiment a seat to the International Space Station, one of five such projects headed to space from schools across Florida.
Collins Sheldon, 11, proposed testing whether microgravity in space affects the production of E. coli proteins that can be made into medicines, possibly speeding up the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals.
The Student Spaceflight Experiment Program picks students’ experiments to launch into space with astronauts where they perform the experiments on the International Space Station to gather data for the students.
It selected only 39 proposals from the 2,261 submitted in December for this school year’s contest from across the world. Five came from schools across Florida – two from Hillsborough County and one each from Marion, Sarasota and Brevard counties.
Sheldon, a student at Howard Middle School, began her proposal last year as a fifth grader with a group of five other girls. Their project was not selected. When they graduated from elementary school, they were offered the chance to submit another proposal. The five other girls were too busy, so Collins decided to try it all on her own.
Collins said she shared news of her selection with friends: “They were all really excited,” she said.
The other four projects from Florida include:
- Two from the Randall Middle School in Lithia, near Tampa. They may help answer questions about how astronauts on long-duration flights can eat. One involves whether a particular plant, Red Garnet Amaranth, can grow in microgravity. The other explores the effects of microgravity on the nutrition and growth rates of sesame microgreens.
- An experiment from Pine View School for the Gifted in Osprey in Sarasota County will try to answer questions about whether a microbe, Chlorella vulgaris, can be used to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater in microgravity.
- An experiment from Pinecrest Space Coast Academy in Viera Beach will study how to detect toxins in microgravity using properties in horseshoe crab blood.
Realistic and hands-on experience is the point of the program, said Jeff Goldstine, the center director of the Maryland-based National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. He said members of the review board who choose the final experiments say they never did research proposals on this scale until graduate school.
“The only way to do that is to bring real-world experiences from the professional STEM into the pre-college classroom,” said Goldstein.
In Ocala, Collins’ project was in a pool of over 12,000 students’ microgravity experiment proposals. She hopes to one day be a marine biologist and said finalizing the proposal was a great real-world experience.
“I learned how to research well,” she said.
Lisa Fontaine-Dorsey, the gifted resource teacher and lab teacher for science, technology, engineering, art and math at Dr. N.H. Jones Elementary, advised Collins. She began her teaching career in 1992 and was a Golden Apple recipient and named teacher of the year in 1998.
Dorsey said administrators have allowed her to teach outside the box to motivate her students.
“They choose their experiment,” said Dorsey. “They do it all, they take it and run with it.”
Collins’ father, Ole Sheldon, teaches accounting at the College of Central Florida in Ocala. He said when Collins’ proposal wasn’t selected the first time, she still gained something from it.
“We encourage her – and she hates the word – but we encourage her to fail as often as possible, actually, because we just keep failing our way up,” he said.
Collins’ experiment is set to launch in June, although spaceflights routinely get delayed.
Dorsey was especially excited to have girls making proposals this year.
“I think that STEAM education is so important for girls,” she said, referring to science, technology, education, arts and math. “They seem to drop off from that and I’m all about girl power, so I was really proud that we had a bunch of girls involved this time, too.”
Art was added to STEM and became STEAM in 2012 but only recently started showing up in classrooms. It was added to increase creativity and visual learning.
Another project from Dorsey’s elementary school was selected previously.Fifth graders studied fermentation in space, which can be used to produce medicines and other products. It launched in November 2022 and returned to earth in January.
Aarya and Anakan, both 11, are now sixth-graders at Howard Middle School but came up with their project when they were in the fifth grade. They started in September 2021, and it was launched into space Nov. 26, 2022, and returned to earth Jan. 11.
Collins said she has no desire to fly in space herself, but she and her former teacher will travel to Florida’s Space Coast to watch the rocket launch.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “I’m really excited.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.