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Space flight taking off in Buffalo schools

Don’t look now, but Buffalo might be making a bit of a name for itself in the field of space flight.

For the second time in three years, a team of students from a Buffalo public school has earned the right to have its science experiment launched to the International Space Station for testing by astronauts.

The latest winner of the Take Flight Space Experiments Program – a regional competition with more than 300 participating students from 13 area schools – was a four-member team from International Preparatory School on the city's West Side. The students are: Sole Witt, 15; Alejandro Arrigo, 16; and the Everett sisters, Joy Elaine, 12, and Joanne, 13.

Their experiment?

The effect of microgravity on Bacillus subtilis on subsequent terrestrial behavior.

That just means they’re researching how space travel affects bacterial growth to determine its potential use in agriculture and industry on another planet.

“I felt like an actual scientist while I was doing the research,” said Sole, a freshman at I-Prep.

The competition is part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program coordinated by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which partners with NASA and NanoRacks, a leader in the commercial space industry.

Since 2010, the education center has tried to inspire students nationwide by offering the opportunity to test their space-related projects at the International Space Station.

Locally, the competition is sponsored by WNY STEM Hub – a nonprofit created to steer students toward the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and made possible with funding from Praxair and Moog, which secures a spot for the winning project inside the science laboratory 249 miles above the Earth.

In 2015, a team of three students from Hamlin Park School – nicknamed the Spud Launchers – won the competition with their experiment testing whether space travel affects a potato’s ability to grow.

That experiment and this one have one thing in common: teacher Andrew Franz.

Franz served as the academic adviser for the Hamlin Park project and was later awarded the prestigious Milken Educator Award in 2017 for his work with the Spud Launchers.

Hamlin Park's 'spud launcher' teacher surprised by national award

When he transferred to I-Prep, where the 61 percent graduation rate is lower than the districtwide average, Franz encouraged students at his new school to take part in the space flight competition.

Franz is hoping that by introducing more kids – particularly girls and minorities – to the fields of science that he’s opening doors to promising careers that will have a lasting impact on their lives.

“If I really want to make a difference as a teacher, that’s where it can be – by encouraging these students and getting them more confident in the STEM fields,” said Franz, a special education and science teacher.

“We’re not just establishing some little, fun project where the end result is you go to Cape Canaveral and Washington, D.C.,” Franz said. “We’re trying to establish something that can be a lasting part of Buffalo.”

Franz’s team, which includes teacher Sara Enser, has been working since the fall developing and refining their proposal in preparation for a spring or summer launch.

Franz and Sole were in the laboratory Monday at SUNY Buffalo State working with Derek Beahm, an assistant professor in the Biology Department, who is serving as their professional adviser on the project.

The students have established a GoFundMe page to raise money for a trip to Florida to watch the launch and then present their findings at a conference in Washington, D.C.

Alluding to the spores formed from bacteria, they even have their own team name: the Sporeos.

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