Rochester school to send experiment to International Space Station

Feb 3, 2017

From left, De'Aunte Johnson, Binti Mohamed and Tailor Davis work together in chemistry class at East High School in Rochester. The trio's proposal was to see how the lack of gravity in space would affect how phytoplankton produces chlorophyll.
Credit Sasha-Ann Simons/WXXI News

When East High School chemistry teacher Mary Courtney submitted three proposals in fall 2016 for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, she could hardly wait to find out which one would take off … literally.

“This was a very difficult project,” Courtney said, “It’s probably the most difficult project that our students do their entire time in high school.”

As part of the program, students from 21 schools across the United States and Canada competed for the chance to have their science experiments that test how microgravity affects various organisms, sent to the International Space Station as part of Mission 11.

Students De’Aunte Johnson, Tailor Davis and Binti Mohamed were thrilled that their proposal was the one chosen from East High.

“Ms. Courtney pushed us aside and was like, ‘You won!’ and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I started freaking out,” Mohamed said.

The group conducted their research on a group of microscopic organisms called phytoplankton, which live in lakes and oceans.  Through the process of photosynthesis, the organism produces one half of the oxygen we have on earth.

Students use a spectrophotometer to conduct experiments at East High School in Rochester.
Credit Sasha-Ann Simons/WXXI News

“The question is, when this goes to space, is there an effect by not having gravity on the production of the chlorophyll?” Courtney said, “The other variable that happens, is this experiment is going to be kept in a dark container, and so it’s not going to be exposed to oxygen.”

Johnson, a senior at East High, led the trio to a successful submission.

“We had a couple different choices, but we picked my idea,” he said.

The final proposal was a true team effort, though.

“There were parts we all had to do,” Mohamed said. “Tailor was doing the introduction and De’Aunte was doing part three and four. He reviewed it later on and changed stuff that we needed to clarify or get into more detail with.”

Courtney said phytoplankton was a great, timely choice.

“As the U.S. and other countries move forward with space exploration, the idea is to eventually establish colonies – either on the moon, or other planets. So, if you’re on Mars, you’ve got to be able to produce food,” the science teacher said.

East High School chemistry teacher Mary Courtney.
Credit Sasha-Ann Simons/WXXI News

The 21 winning experiments will blast off in a mini-laboratory to the International Space Station in June.  The first order of business for the East High team is to figure out which type of phytoplankton they will use.  

“And also which type of mixture we’re going to use to make sure they have enough nutrients when they go up into space,” Johnson said.

Once the experiment is aboard the space station, astronauts will interact with it, based on guidelines set by the students.

As the person who has been watching the entire process, Courtney said she couldn’t be more proud.

“I want them to think completely differently about everything around them at the end of the year,” she said. “If I do that, and they think differently about everyday subjects, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”