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Students’ Experiment, Dreams Crystalize in Space

An illustration of an experiment

Like ideas, crystals form, take shape and grow. They become snowflakes, diamonds or salt. They also could assume new characteristics if chemicals in those crystals become altered in the zero gravity of space.

Countless elementary school children have grown sugar crystals on a string in science class – rock candy. But only a select group of students from Eastfield and El Centro colleges have tried to crystallize sodium acetate under zero-gravity and near-zero-gravity conditions.

Six of those eight students – the 2014 DCCCD NASA team – spent a week on the ground and flew parabolas in the sky (on NASA’s famous “Weightless Wonder” jumbo jet) to test their experiment. They wanted to learn how a sodium acetate crystal might look when grown in zero gravity in super-saturated sodium, compared to the effects of regular gravity on Earth.

An Exclusive Flight Club

DCCCD’s team was one of only three community colleges in the country chosen to participate in a 2014 Reduced Gravity Education Flight as part of NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Program. A total of 13 colleges and universities were selected to test their experiments in flight.
NASA’s space- and research-based programs and testing include educational outreach that is designed to promote careers in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. NASA is particularly interested in minority college students, because they typically are underrepresented in STEM fields.
With the support of DCCCD’s Outreach office, team members Salvador de Leon, Christopher Pleis, Valeria Lujan, Samuel Rodriguez, Stephen Todd Stovall and team leader Maureen “Moe” Tucker trekked to the Johnson Space Center’s Ellington Field in July. They were accompanied by advisors Dr. Kendra Wallis, physics professor, and Richard Post, biology professor, from Eastfield College. (Team members Eduardo Aguirre and Eric Edwards were unable to go to Houston.)
Lujan grew up when the U.S. space program had become “routine.” Several generations had witnessed first flights, first steps on the moon and first shuttles. Lujan’s generation was witnessing the end of the shuttle program, the wane of space travel – perhaps the end of an era.
But Lujan doesn’t look at it that way. Anything she saw or read about NASA and space travel excited her when she was in high school. Little did she know that her love of space and science would take her into zero gravity on NASA’s “Weightless Wonder.”
“I was always ‘into’ NASA things and space travel when I was growing up,” she recalled. “I am super-excited to participate and to be involved in the process, but I’ll be glad when we finish and have the results of our experiment, too. Creating and preparing this experiment for the flight has been like taking another class.”

 Members of DCCCD's team work on their experiment at Johnson Space Center.

​A Proposal, but Will NASA Accept It?

The team had only a few weeks to design an experiment when they learned about NASA’s Reduced Gravity Flight Education Program.
 “We brainstormed for three to four days and chose to test the effects of microgravity on crystallization. We spent the Thanksgiving holiday working on the proposal so that we could meet the December deadline,” remembered Lujan. Their efforts paid off. The team was notified in January that the experiment was a “go.”
Team members conducted research (growing crystals from different sodium acetate solutions) and recorded everything. That included diagrams of the crystals they grew in 1G, or Earth’s gravity. 
“We spent lots of time in the lab, participated in monthly videoconferences with the program director and participated in community outreach efforts – which were part of our requirements,” added Lujan. “We were like ambassadors for the program. One of our team members planned strategies with the STEM Club at Eastfield. As members of the Eastfield Science Club, we visited several schools and demonstrated our experiment, too.”
Aguirre, who is majoring in electrical engineering, told the Eastfield Et Cetera, “Being on the team means going above and beyond what is normally expected at DCCCD. The challenge given is unlike anything else given in the classroom.”

‘Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience’

“The Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for teachers and students to propose, design, build, test and fly a microgravity experiment aboard NASA’s microgravity aircraft,” said Sarah Gonzales, NASA education specialist for the reduced gravity program.
She added, “Students involved in the program test their experiments on board while the aircraft flies approximately 30 parabolic maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico. The parabolic patterns provide about 30 seconds of hypergravity (about 1.8 to 2 Gs) as the plane flies to the top of the parabola. Once the plane starts to ‘nose over’ the top of the parabola and descends toward Earth, the students experience about 15 to 25 seconds of microgravity – they are in free fall.  That’s when they conduct their research.”
During the team’s stay in Houston, the DCCCD students prepared their experiment and adapted the method they were using to conduct their research. Members also spent a day with NASA scientists, who visited with them and reviewed every team’s experiment – making suggestions and sharing observations along the way.
And then the DCCCD team flew on the jumbo jet – a small group of students among a handful of people in the world who have experienced the thrill of zero gravity. Now they are assessing and analyzing their results.

Learning Skills Outside the Classroom

The entire process taught the team many skills, according to Lujan.
“Team work, responsibility and dependability are at the top of the list of skills we learned,” she said. “I’m not doing this for a grade. I decided to do it … to stick with it – and everyone who started is still here. We’re a team.”
Lujan added that the team itself is special not only because of its work and the trip to NASA.  “Two of our team members are parents. One member is a mom, and she goes to school. I am a full-time student, and I work part time – about half of our team go to school full time and the other half attend part time.” 
About half of the team members are the first person in their families to go to college, too.  Several are transferring to other schools, like Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University; two are going to the University of Texas at Dallas to major in engineering. Once she has finished her degree at Eastfield, Lujan wants to major in chemical engineering.
“This entire experience is still kind of unreal,” said Lujan, “but programs like this one have gotten newer generations excited about space.”
For more information about the Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, visit http://reducedgravity.jsc.nasa.gov. 
For more information about the Minority University Research and Education Project, go to https://microgravityuniversity.jsc.nasa.gov/murep/ or contact Ashle Harris at NASA Johnson Space Center’s public affairs office at 281-792-7457 or send an email to her at ashle.s.harris@nasa.gov.