Field Trip: Milford elementary students design experiments intended for blast-off into orbit

MILFORD, Ohio - Teachers around the Tri-State use innovative and creative means to engage their students and instill a love of learning. With our "Field Trip" series, we head back to school for a lesson in what works in classrooms today.

Students at this school district's six elementary schools are preparing for flight with the new Suborbital Experiment Program.

Designed and developed by Mulberry Elementary fifth-grade math and science teacher Steve Heck, the program allows students to test the effects of microgravity by sending experiments on a suborbital space flight.

  • A suborbital flight is when a spacecraft reaches space but does not complete one orbital revolution.

The experiments are not the only thing being tested; the program itself is the first of what teachers hope will be many.

“This is an experimental year. It’s the first year we’ve done it,” said Emma Walker, a fifth-grade science and social studies teacher at Seipelt Elementary.

The district's six elementary schools are:

  • Boyd E. Smith
  • Meadowview
  • McCormick
  • Mulberry
  • Pattison
  • Charles L. Seipelt

This school year, fifth-grade teachers from each of the schools went through training at the non-profit STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning center iSpace . Fifth-grade students also visited the center, which is located on Scarlet Oaks campus in Sharonville.

How it works:

After learning about STEM subjects, students in groups of four or five designed experiments. The designs had to fit into a 4-inch by 4-inch cube and are presented alongside posters explaining the group’s hypothesis, procedures and other information.

“This is one chance they get to be really creative,” Walker said.

Teachers and outside guests judged the projects, selecting one group per homeroom at each elementary school.

The experiments selected will be on display May 28 in the Milford High School cafeteria, and 10 will be chosen as winners of the competition. The winners will include at least one design from each elementary school.

Then, those experiments will go to space on a 30-minute suborbital flight aboard a space transport vehicle called the Lynx, which is being designed and built by XCOR Aerospace.

Heck, who is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force and earned his civilian astronaut wings from the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR)  Center last summer, hopes to take the experiments on the flight himself.

Science and creativity

The Suborbital Experiment Program has helped students learn about experimental design through first-hand application of the scientific process, Walker said.

“This really allows them to go through the process of what science is. There’s been a lot of trial and error."

While it can be discouraging to design an experiment only to discover its flaws upon application, the students have done a good job of trying again and working out the problems. Teamwork and creativity have played a major role in that process.

Walker said it has been fun to witness is how some groups use the similar materials to test different hypotheses.
Seipelt Elementary fifth-graders Liddy Dow, Tiffany Lau, Spenser Hore and Ian Golden are one of multiple groups testing magnetism using compasses.

The group set its experiment apart by testing three things in one. Within their cube, they placed three compasses in smaller cubes. One compass is dipped in vegetable oil, another in salt water, and the third is unmanipulated.

“A ton of different groups are doing compass experiments, but none is exactly like this,” Hore said.

Holden Lewis, Gavin Lockwood, Lucio Durham, William Maynard and Ashton Vandeenter, also of Seipelt Elementary, used vegetable oil in their experiment as well. Their team hopes to test whether or not oil and water will mix in microgravity. Their cube is filled with dyed blue water and yellow oil. If the fluids mix, the mixture is expected to be green when it comes back.

Lewis likes the Suborbital Experiment Program because it encouraged him and his group members to be creative.

“I think it’s cool, and it gets your mind going, so you can be creative and test an idea to see what will happen,” he said.

Other experimenters strived to set their designs apart using materials that weren’t being tested by other groups. Seipelt Elementary students Sara Rogala, Nyah Goslin, Kylie Olson and Kara Bowling hope to see how microgravity will affect seeds.

“We knew not a lot of people will be sending seeds into space,” Olson said.

“We thought it would be fun and unique,” Goslin added.

Trying to stay ahead of standards

Seipelt and the other five elementary schools are part of a district serving students residing in the Milford and Miami Township. The district population is 6,255. Just under 400 of those students are enrolled at Seipelt, which was recognized by the Ohio Department of Education as a School of Promise

and a High Progress School of Honor in 2013.

Seipelt also was nominated for the national designation of a Blue Ribbon School. School officials will find out in November if they will be awarded the designation.

While Seipelt Elementary has received and been nominated for multiple awards, the school and the district have faced some challenges.

In November 2012, an operational levy for the district failed to pass. When the levy was placed on the ballot again in May 2013, it was approved by voters.

Increased technology in education and recent curriculum changes have also proven challenging.

“Trying to stay a step ahead can be difficult. But the district does a really good job of professional development and making sure students have everything they need to learn,” said Seipelt Elementary Principal Sarah Greb.

What’s next?

Teachers hope to continue the Suborbital Experiment Program annually, Walker said. 

For fifth graders, the project will carry over into sixth grade, when the suborbital flight is expected to take place.

Heck’s goal is to continue the program, but also to make it available to others.

“I wanted to make it available, so somehow all the kids in Cincinnati - whether home-schooled, in parochial or public schools - could do this,” he said.

He hopes to eventually see the program take off statewide, nationwide and even internationally.

  • Got a tip for us about an awesome K-12 school, summer program or summer camp? Email Community Editor Holly Edgell:

Connect with WCPO Contributor Roxanna Swift on Twitter: @r0xiehart .

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