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Contributing to Space Exploration with Cubes in Space: Students at Academia Cotopaxi Reach for the S

By Margot Solberg (grade 4 teacher) Academia Cotopaxi, Ecuador @msolberg12

At Academia Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador, seventeen students in the after school “Cubes in Space/NASA Club”, for grades five to eight, were recently approved to fly five science experiments into space! The following highlights the main points of this unique STEAM opportunity, as described by Cubes in Space directly:

Cubes in Space™ is a program by idoodledu inc., in collaboration with NASA’s Langley Research Center, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and Colorado Space Grant Consortium, offers global design competitions for students 11-18 years of age to develop STEAM-based experiments for launch into space. Used in formal or informal learning environments, students and educators are exposed to engaging online content and activities in preparation for the design and development of an experiment to be integrated into a small cube. Throughout the experience, students develop key 21st century skills; communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Since 2014, Cubes in Space has flown nearly 400 experiments representing 1500 educators and over 20,000 students from 57 different countries. This year nearly 600 educators and thousands of students from 39 countries participated and proposed experiments for a space on a NASA sounding rocket or high-altitude scientific balloon mission.  A total of 160 experiments were selected and were designed by students from Australia, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Mexico, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, the and the United States of America. The experiments will be launched via sounding rocket in late June 2017 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia or by high-altitude scientific balloon in late summer 2017 from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico.

Phase I of this process involved proposal writing which, in essence, involved all phases of the Design Process: driving questions (what do you want to know about how things work in space?), and then proceeding to question the “why’s” (why will the concept be useful for mankind, in space or on Earth?) and “how’s” of the process. Due to registering late and encountering a short time frame to work with, the club members had to dig their heels in hard and get to work fast; meeting twice a week and on occasional lunch breaks. Parents also pitched in with providing transportation as needed, as well as cheering on these inquirers from the sidelines. Students too young to participate, yet eager to be involved, were also able to follow the process, contribute their ideas, conduct their own experiments, and participate in the Patch Contest. However, club members quickly discovered that many initial ideas needed to be dropped upon further investigation, as ongoing research revealed incompatibility issues; for example, the complexities of finding out how cancer cells or nematodes would react in a space environment. Additionally, expertise help was called upon in order to surmount hurdles and, thanks to the generosity of other science teachers and students, as well as a Skype call with the president of CIS (!), club members were able to tackle ongoing challenges…authentic learning in action! Ultimately, five meaningful proposals (two for the rocket and three for the balloon) were conceived and submitted for an initial review.

Phase II involved receiving feedback from CIS’s Preliminary Review Committee regarding three of the five proposals submitted, and this was where students really needed to dig deeper into their learning! The committee asked the students to learn about new concepts, such as “viscosity”, and figure out a way to quantify some types of qualitative data (a rubric!). Club members thought of a myriad of solutions based on the feedback they’d received – based on research, peer brainstorming, simple experiments, and consulting one another – and, ultimately, constructed new understandings by building upon their prior knowledge base. These three proposals were re-submitted and – after blood, sweat and tears (ok, maybe no blood or tears) – all five concepts were approved for flight!

Now we are set for Phase III! Soon our micro-cubes and kits will arrive in order for more experimentation to take place. It is one thing to conceive of a concept, but quite another to carry it out successfully. Once again, with the help of experts (like our maintenance staff to show us how to mix concrete samples with specific weights!), the students will likely “fail”…learn…and retry their concepts, all within a (real life) looming deadline and in an attempt to see their ideas come to fruition. Experiencing grit and resilience are all part of the learning process…all a part of authentic learning.

Phase IV will entail launches at two NASA facilities this summer, along with invitations to attend, for those club members who choose to participate independently and take advantage of the unique STEAM opportunities which CIS has programmed.

Lastly, Phase V will involve a return of the cubes to the school in the fall, analyzing the data, and sharing the results both within and outside of the school community.

Cubes in Space is project-based learning at its best and, while it does take a solid investment of time and energy to implement, has the potential to impact STEAM learning for generations to come. I, for one, know that these students will never forget how their hard work paid off, AND helped contribute to space exploration. How exciting is that?! Stay tuned for results in fall 2017 and, meanwhile, check out the CIS website at


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