Ballard High School students sending experiment into space

    When NASA launches one of the final missions of the U.S. Space Shuttle this February, a small piece of Ballard will be blasting off with it.

    Ballard High School biotechnology and astronomy students were one of only 15 school groups nationwide selected to include an experiment aboard the Shuttle Endeavour during one of its final two flights as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

    Ballard High School physics and astronomy teacher Eric Muhs said being included on the shuttle is great for Ballard's science programs.

    "It makes us look really smart - maybe smarter than we are," he joked.

    Ballard's experiment will launch a population of E. Coli into space to test for changes, such as mutations, plasmid uptake ability and growth rate, while it grows for two weeks in microgravity.

    Muhs said the experiment was put squarely in the lap of the students with little teacher input.

    "I think they've done a great job," Muhs said. "It's been super fun."

    Developing the experiment was not only a lesson for the students but a confidence builder as well.

    "During the first couple of meetings, much of what we talked about went over my head," said Ballard High School student Paul Menendez. "For a while I felt that I couldn't contribute to the experiment. However, once we got our main idea down as to what we wanted to test I learned much more than I thought."

    Menendez said he learned how to count cells with a spectrometer or by hand and took more data than he thought was possible.

    Ballard High School students will be able to compare standard E. Coli cells to the "well-traveled" E. Coli cells, which will be frozen and stored, for years to come, Muhs said.

    He said it's great for students to have the opportunity to do real science, not just read a textbook and answer the questions at the end of the chapter.

    "That's why I got into science - to do stuff, not just read how other people did it," Muhs said.

    Muhs said the school is hoping to send a group of students to Florida to watch the shuttle launch Feb. 27.

    "This was a great experience for me," Menendez said. "I had always had an interest in space that consequently really grew over the last few months."

    Students worked in partnership with Baliga Lab at the Institute for Systems Biology near Gas Works Park. Partial funding for the project came from the Washington Space Consortium.

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