Tarrant High Students Learn the Value of Scientific Research by Teaming Up with NASA and UAB

If the Sunday forecast for Cape Canaveral was better, nine Tarrant High School students would personally watch as their biological science project lifts off for the International Space Station, inside a Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket.

Even though the weather prompted NASA to delay the resupply mission (which will deliver a 5000-lb payload of scientific experiments and supplies), the THS 11th graders are still making the trip to Florida. It’s not the first time the scheduled Falcon 9 launch has had to be postponed, and NASA and Tarrant Superintendent Shelly Mize didn’t want to disappoint the students again.

“NASA has planned awesome activities for our kids,” Mize says, “including special tours, passes, dinners, visits with astronauts, and more.” The students, accompanied by Mize and faculty advisors, will leave later today after months of hard work preparing their crystallized protein experiment – research that can contribute to the development of treatments for life-threatening diseases.

Keep up with the students’ NASA adventures by following the Twitter hashtag #NASAths through March 31.
UPDATE 3/31/14: A photo that needs no caption!

Learning about science in the real world

Although the THS students will be the only young scientists from Alabama making the Cape Canaveral trip, Tarrant High is one of 10 Birmingham area schools participating in a project partnership supported by NASA and UA-Birmingham.

UAB professor Dr. Lawrence DeLucas, who wrote the NASA grant, and Dr. Kevin Walsh, executive director of the Youth Leadership Development Program in Birmingham, selected the 10 participating schools. Walsh also raised scholarship money that will be shared with the highest performing student teams.

Dr. Walsh said they chose Tarrant for the project for two reasons: the district and community’s strong commitment to authentic learning opportunities, and the chance to open up a new area of involvement for THS students.

“They don’t always get picked to participate in projects like this,” he told AL.com. “I wanted them to be able to have the opportunity to work at this level and prove themselves.”

(Photo: AL.com)

A UAB News article reports that there are “close to 100 proteins being utilized in the crystallization experiments scheduled for the launch of the SpaceX-3 rocket.” Dr. DeLucas, a former Space Shuttle mission specialist, first performed his own protein crystal experiments on board the STS-50 shuttle flight in the summer of 1992.

The NASA-supported student project is part of a long-term effort by DeLucas and his UAB team to demonstrate the benefits of microgravity on protein crystallization. By enhancing the size and quality of protein crystal growth in space, scientists can begin to develop compounds that can regulate proteins known to be associated with diseases like lupus and cystic fibrosis.

When the experiments prepared by Tarrant and other Birmingham area high schools return after six months orbiting the Earth, the teen scientists (who will be high school seniors) will still have work to do. According to the UAB article, “students will analyze their samples, prepare posters and orally present their results to a nonbiased panel of UAB scientists in early 2015. The presentations will be judged, and the top three presenting groups will be awarded scholarship money.”

Tarrant High Principal Darius McKay (right, above) made a powerful point in his comments to the news media this week. “Many students in our high schools only study about science, but our students are being scientists themselves.” McKay, who majored in science, also noted that “I never did anything like this in high school. I didn’t even do anything like it in college.”

McKay singled out THS science teachers Rosie Black-James and Candyce Monroe for their roles in guiding the students through the research and development process. And he thanked the Tarrant Board of Education and area community organizations for helping to underwrite the students’ trip to Florida.

What the students say

The students from Tarrant participating in the project, all juniors, are Wanda Gibson, Jamikal Hall, Logan Watson, Dania Bravo, Enrique Arroyo, Asherah Jackson, Darnella Cole, Kimberly Mendez and Courtney Gressman.

“From this experience working with the crystals, I have learned a lot about chemistry, and I’m actually going to pursue a minor in chemistry now,” Asherah Jackson told Birmingham’s Channel 6 News.

In the same news story, Kimberly Mendez described the satisfaction that authentic learning opportunities can bring.

“To have the opportunity to do something like this is just incredible,” she said. “It’s like I’m not just a high school student – I’m a lot more than that. And I feel like that’s how everyone should feel.”