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Competition has Falls students shooting for the stars

NIAGARA FALLS – Young people often are encouraged to aim for the stars.

When teachers in Niagara Falls say that to their students, they really mean it.

About 75 students at three Falls schools will be competing later this year to have their science experiments conducted on the International Space Station.

When these students come back next school year, they’ll be participating in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, a project of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.

“They’re going to design experiments, they have to write proposals, just like a scientist would,” said Ronni McGrath, coordinator of the district’s kindergarten through eighth grade science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program.

The experiments will involve research into micro-gravity, or the appearance of weightlessness, in space.

Students, who will likely work in small groups, will be able to look at how micro-gravity affects things like cell activity, plant growth, metals, bone density or muscle tissue, McGrath said.

Each experiment will have to be small enough to fit inside a small tube, and the students will have to write instructions so the astronaut can carry it out.

Proposed experiments will be reviewed by a local panel of engineering and science experts, and the winning experiment will be flown into space to be conducted by an astronaut next spring.

“It is a very small timeline with which students have to prepare themselves,” McGrath said, “so we’re hoping to get them thinking about this over the summer so we can start immediately when they begin school (in the fall).”

In all, one project from a group of 10 area schools, including the three from the Falls, will make it into space.

Abate Elementary, Gaskill Preparatory and Niagara Falls High School will be the participating Falls schools. One class of fifth-graders at Abate will participate, and teachers at Gaskill and Niagara Falls High School will be looking for students interested in science and math to participate in a voluntary club.

Working on the project will require a significant time commitment from students, especially those at the middle and high school levels, McGrath said. The work will be done over about a nine-week period.

The project also will have an art component, with a local contest to create a “mission patch” for the experiment that also will be flown into space.

This is the first time Falls schools are participating in the program, but schools across the country have been involved since 2010.

The flight to the space station in the spring would be the ninth mission of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

Officials with Falls schools see this as an opportunity to continue to build their STEM program.

The Falls district constructed STEM labs in each school building as part of a recent, districtwide capital project. There are two such labs in the high school.

The participation of the 10 schools in this project, which also includes five public schools and two charter schools in Buffalo, is being coordinated regionally by the Western New York STEM Hub.

The organization is a nonprofit group that says its goal is to create awareness and partnerships to help students learn and find careers in the aforementioned fields.

“It’s a credit to Niagara Falls city schools for being a leader in STEM education, that they can involve the number of students and staff that they have, and they have the leadership built in,” said Michelle Kavanaugh, president of WNY STEM Hub.

Local organizers also are looking for mentors for participating students. Each participating student also will also have the chance to present their ideas at an event in Washington, D.C., next July.