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How would a compass behave in space or in the earth’s ionosphere? What if you sent up an uncharged battery there—what would happen? What about sending up live mosquito larvae in a gel—how would life be affected? What if you sent up a pendulum—what might it do?
Students at NorthGate College explored many creative ideas, including these ones, before deciding on their winning entry in the Cubes in Space project: an ionisation experiment to measure whether an electromagnetic field is generated in the ionosphere.
“It was an experiment to test whether we could harvest electricity from space or if there was an electrical charge in the ionosphere. If so, could it be recorded? And was it a reasonable enough amount to use?” explained Zachary Joel last Wednesday when students involved in the project chatted with the Sunday Guardian.
The ionosphere, I learned, is the layer in the upper atmosphere that is ionised by solar and cosmic radiation. The sun's energy is so strong at this level that it breaks apart molecules. Even though the ionosphere is tiny—it occupies only 0.1 per cent of the earth’s total atmosphere—it is very important for us: it makes long-distance radio communication possible by reflecting radio waves back to earth. The ionosphere is also home to auroras. If electrical energy can indeed be harvested here, we might have a new renewable source.
It took students two weeks of brainstorming before coming up with the winning “ionisation in the atmosphere” idea. They then had to refine that idea into something workable. The students had to submit their proposal to the contest organisers. After approval, they had less than a week to bring all the bits together, working during lunchtimes and after school. So all of their advance research and planning was vital, given the short construction time.
There were several challenges, however. First of all, the experiment had to fit in a tiny cube of 40 mm X 40 m x 40mm—that’s pretty small. The weight limit was 50 grammes. So they had to find miniature components (not available in local hardware stores!), do extensive research to source and order the correct parts online. They had to organise themselves and assign duties to each of the 17 team members to do the whole project.
In the final week of assembly, despite their earlier research, they suddenly discovered they had to completely change their original design to fit into the cube, shared Conrad Taitt and Jenae Williams. So they had to write to the contest organisers and re-submit a whole new proposal. They learned that failures are often necessary on the path to a successful experiment—and they put their heads together to find a solution, adjusting their original design.
They made two cubes testing the same idea. The first (main) cube contained a microcomputer which was attached to copper wire and a voltmeter. (A voltmeter is an instrument used for measuring electrical potential difference between two points in an electric circuit.) Students explained that when copper wire passes through an electrical field, a current is induced in the wire. “Information from the voltmeter would be measured by the microcomputer and stored on an SD card. So that was the main cube experiment,” said a student. (This cube hasn’t been opened since its June rocket trip yet—students are waiting on one of their science mentors to help them decode the data.)
The second cube they put together was simpler: it had no microcomputer, just a fuse attached to copper wires. So if there were indeed electrical charges up there, the current would go through the wire and blow the fuses. (When this cube was opened after its return to earth, no fuses were burnt. So the students learned about the scientific method: you can never know a hypothesis will work, unless you test it!)
Excitement in learning
Would the students do this again? They replied with a resounding “Yes!” “I learned a lot about the ionosphere,” said Shanade Ali. “I really didn’t know much about it or the many layers there…Also, we had to put a lot of time into the experiment, even though we had only a short time to build it, so we had to have good teamwork: people had to depend on other people to get the information quickly.” Head of NorthGate College’s Math Department, Ruth Rudden said they found out about the contest through the BrightPath Foundation (a friend of NorthGate College). The college then threw it open to any students interested—to a great response.
Rudden said, “idoodle, a Canadian company, was the main brain behind the competition. They covered some costs. Total costs were about US$100… idoodle really tried to make it accessible to students everywhere; it was not a ‘First World’ competition.
“These students really learned a lot from the experiment...including how to solder,” she commented.
“We learned patience,” quipped one student.
“And the need to have confidence in what we’re doing, even though we’re just a small school in Trinidad!” said another.
“Our school declaration says: ‘We accept no limitation except those given to us by God.’ We try to be a global school...And being global does not start when you step onto a plane. It starts in your mentality, in your heart,” said Rudden.
She added, “I would love to see in the school system, starting from the preschool to the primary school and up, that we understand education is about learning. It’s OK to fail—as long as you don’t stop at the failure. I think there’s a general malaise in our school system that arises from everyone wanting to ‘get it right,’ to pass an exam, as opposed to: What can I learn from this to apply to life?... Yes, we operate inside of an examination system academically; but we are far more than people being trained to sit an exam; we are human beings being trained to live life and to make a valid, measurable contribution.”
What did the students think was the most important thing about the Cubes in Space project? “It was fun!”
Making education interesting, motivating and relevant—now, there’s a great lesson.
What is Cubes in Space?
Cubes in Space is a global design contest in which teams of secondary school students from around the world (ages 11 to 14) compete by developing unique science experiments for launch into the upper atmosphere. It is a partnership between Rubik Learning Initiative, the Canadian firm idoodlesoftware inc, the Colorado Space Grant Consortium's RockSat-C programme, and is supported by the Sounding Rocket Program Office at Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility. The experiment is carried up 1,500 km into the atmosphere in the rocket, and spends about five minutes there, before returning to earth.
Deadline for the last contest was April 28; the winner, NorthGate College in St Augustine, was announced on May 2, and their cube experiment was flown into the upper atmosphere on June 26. The students recently received prizes for their efforts in a ceremony at the Canadian High Commissioner’s home on September 26. The 2015 global Cubes in Space contest is now open. For more info, see: www.cubesinspace.com and http://idoodlesoftware.com.
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