Science Class is About to Get Awesome

The International Space Station as seen from STS-135. Photo Credit: NASA

Science class is about to get a lot more interesting. Last week the Conrad Foundation and NanoRacks announced their new joint venture called the DreamUp program. It will help students raise money to take their studies to new heights. Literally. Through DreamUp, students will have the chance to conduct experiments in the microgravity of space.

The unique program comes from two organizations unique in their own right. The Conrad Foundation, founded and chaired by Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad’s widow Nancy, is a not-for-profit that encourages students to use their imagination and enrich their education by taking classroom studies into the real world. NanoRacks LLC was formed in 2009 to provide quality hardware and services for the U.S. National Laboratory onboard the International Space Station. Its current customer base, which includes domestic and international educational institutions, research organizations, and government organizations, has allowed NanoRacks to become a leader in the commercial utilization of low-earth orbit.

Under the DreamUp program, junior high, high school, and undergraduate students from accredited U.S. schools will have access to NanoRacks’ two standardized research platforms aboard the ISS. Also known as NanoLabs, each platform can support 16 experiments housed in small containers. The labs, which are plugged into the ISS’ power and communications system by a NASA astronaut, would give the students remote access to their experiments and the chance to test scientific theories in a zero gravity environment. They would also have the chance to interact with ISS astronauts during their virtual time in the orbiting lab.

The NanoRacks Cube-Lab Module-7 is a reflight of the Fluids Mixing Apparatus used for biological mixing experiments. Photo Credit: NanoRacks, LLC

It’s an incredible opportunity, and one Conrad says is necessary for students to gain a well-rounded scientific education. “Some experiments can’t be done on Earth because we can’t ‘turn off’ gravity,'” she said. “DreamUp… is the ultimate ‘plug and play,’ helping our next great innovators participate in a scientific research opportunity like no other.”

Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, echoed Conrad’s sentiment. “We are committed to lowering the barriers for entry to space research… This is a double win. This first-of-its kind student experiment donation platform will help create a world-class experience for students.”

There’s no shortage of interesting experiments students could run in microgravity. How plants grow in space, how the lifespan of insects differs in space and on Earth, how food decomposes in space, and how fish react to zero gravity are just a few possibilities. In keeping with the Conrad Foundation’s mandate, students are encouraged to be innovative with their proposed projects, providing they adhere to the size and weight requirements of the NanoLabs.

So how are student getting access to these orbiting lab spaces? The DreamUp program uses American Express Membership Rewards points to fund the student-run experiments. Students can design experiments that fit inside two different size payloads, each starting at $15,500. For every 1,000 American Express points redeemed, the DreamUp program will receive $10.00 for the team or school of the donator’s choice. Donations can also be made to a scholarship fund to help under-served schools fund access the ISS labs through the DreamUp program.

Astronauts install Nanoracks experiments and equipment on the International Space Station during STS-134, Endeavour's final mission. Photo Credit: NASA

“The opportunity for students to do small experiments on the ISS is a powerful motivator in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist for the ISS. “DreamUp will provide the opportunity for top students of all socioeconomic levels to fly their experiments to the space station, and the NanoRacks system allows them to be completed without any impact to other research activities.”

Hopefully the DreamUp program will encourage the younger generation to pursue science and technology. But the program could also spur mature students to return for a second undergrad – the possibility of running experiments in space could draw a very interesting crowd!

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