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This artist's rendering depicts the port side of the International Space Station.

This artist's rendering of the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Alumni have astronomical impact on students

Small rural school getting a boost into space

November 8, 2013 — 
Students work with faculty to prepare samples for the ISS

Students work with faculty to prepare samples for the ISS // Photo by Daniel Gwozdz

It all started a year ago, when students at tiny Brant-Argyle School in rural Manitoba were learning about cancer as part of a project on Terry Fox. Their school project has really boosted them upward to success, as next month, three of the students will travel to Virginia where they will watch their experimental project get launched into space for installation aboard the International Space Station.

There are only about 40 students in the entire four-room, K-8 school that is a brick heritage building in the hamlet of Argyle northwest of Winnipeg. The school has multi-level classes, which means it’s basically a 21st century “one-room schoolhouse” that didn’t even have reliable wifi until recently.

Despite these apparent drawbacks, the school has teachers with great determination and passion for creating educational experiences for their students. Every year, for example, the entire school participates in a Terry Fox run to support cancer research and engage in cancer-related educational activities. Teachers in the Interlake School Division, many of whom are University of Manitoba graduates, are helping their students reach for the stars.

Leslie Fuerst (BSc/97, PBDipEd/08) at Brant-Argyle School was trained by her colleague Maria Nickel (BPE/92) about a competition sponsored by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) operated by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE). SSEP allows schools in North America to design and propose real experiments that can be done on the International Space Station (ISS).

Nickel, who teaches at Woodlands School, has a special interest in space and astronomy and even runs a “space club” for students in grades six to eight. She had developed a SSEP proposal that involved all of the Interlake School Division’s 450 students in grades five and six from eight elementary schools. Nickel and Fuerst were among 17 teachers who attended an in-service on how to complete the experiment writing process and enter the competition. Fuerst drafted a proposal in which several of her students would assemble an experimental package that could go into space to test whether cells can be prevented from mutating into cancerous cells.

Yeast in space

Fuerst contacted researchers at the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology (MICB) for assistance in designing an experiment that could work well on the ISS. With their input, Fuerst and her students formulated an experiment titled: “Will cosmic radiation increase the rate of mutations in yeast’s DNA? Will an antioxidant from green tea decrease the rate of mutations in DNA?” In space, astronauts are subjected to increased levels of cosmic rays that can cause mutations in the cells in their bodies. Fuerst and her students wanted to know if astronauts can decrease their risk of cancer by taking an antioxidant supplement said to prevent cell mutations. Since yeast cells are similar to human cells, a study of the effects of cosmic rays and antioxidants on yeast cells may be useful in finding ways to keep astronauts safe in space, and also test whether antioxidants really can prevent cancer.

The Argyle proposal won the SSEP competition out of 16 finalists in Manitoba, placing first in front of two finalists from Woodlands, and was selected to move on to the final phase of competition. The Manitoba proposal was selected from 51 international entries and was the only Canadian entry selected. Fuerst and three of her students will be travelling to Virginia in December, where they will be guests of US Ambassador Gary Doer (former premier of Manitoba) who will take them on a personal tour of the Canadian Consulate. They will then travel to Wallops Island where they will watch their experiment get launched into space aboard a Cygnus transport vehicle on the Antares rocket on its way to docking with the International Space Station, currently scheduled for December 15, 2013.

sudent practice science in classroom

Argyle School students did much in-class preparation before arriving at the U of M to handle yeast they will send to the ISS.

In preparation for the launch, Fuerst and her students have had to design and build their experimental package. After many hours of in-class preparation, this week, she and three students visited the Manitoba Institute of Cell Biology where they were taught how to handle test tubes and syringes, operate a centrifuge and dilute samples.

On Friday, November 8, 2013, Fuerst and her grade six students Ethan Enns, Ryan Petricig and Avery Good will head to the laboratory of Dan Gietz and Liz Henson (BSc/92, MSc/95) in the University of Manitoba department of biochemistry to prepare and package the yeast samples, then deliver them to Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg. There, the samples will undergo final preparation for transport to NANORACKS LLC in Houston, Texas, which will then transport them to the NASA MARS (Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport) facility. Barring another scrub (this is the seventh launch attempt), the yeast samples will head to space on December 15, 2013 and remain in orbit for more than 10 weeks. When the samples return to Earth, Ethan, Ryan and Avery will compare the number mutated yeast colonies and determine if green tea can indeed prevent DNA damage.



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