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Boldly going where no Canadian school has gone before

Student Spaceflights Experiments Program puts Ryerson Science in orbit
By: Will Sloan
July 22, 2016
Spaceflights

Ryerson science students worked with local high school students to design an experiment to be conducted in outer space. Photo by Clifton Li.

On July 19, Ryerson entered the final frontier. Over a year after Ryerson became the first Canadian university to participate in the Student Spaceflights Experiments Program (SSEP), an experiment designed by students was launched into outer space, to be conducted on board the International Space Station.

“It was spectacular to know that this program could potentially allow Ryerson to have a position in space,” said Nathan Battersby, the third-year biology student who brought SSEP to Ryerson. “You always think that only governments get to play in space, so it was cool to think that Ryerson could actually have a part in learning what’s out there.”

SSEP is a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education initiative, conducted as an extracurricular Saturday course and led by the Faculty of Science. The program paired Ryerson students with local high school students in groups to design experiments that could be conducted in low Earth orbit. The winning experiment would be performed in outer space.

The winning experiment will monitor the growth of Pleurotus ostreatus in Microgravity. Or, in layman’s terms, it will test the possibility of growing oyster mushrooms in space. Designed by Preet Kahlon, Francis Buguis, Gemma Mancuso, and David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute high school students Modlin Orange and Kugenthini Tharmakulasekaram, it will be performed simultaneously on the Space Station and in a lab at Ryerson.

“It’s hard to anticipate how you’ll feel when that experiment is going up into space,” said Battersby. “Watching the launch happen… it’s difficult to explain how it felt knowing that this time, on this rocket, there’s actually something that our team was holding in our hands, and put together ourselves. It’s a feeling you can’t really explain.”

The program had an impact down here on earth too. “We were able to get high schoolers to work with our undergrads and learn from them and do something that’s different from what they’re studying in textbooks,” said Emily Agard, director of science communication, outreach and public engagement. “They got a chance to work in university labs, and work with students who were just the right age to be their mentors, because they were older but not too much older. They were able to relate well to them, but also able to learn from them.”

“They’ve learned project management in a way that isn’t just about doing something that’s kind-of trivial down here on earth – that is way more complex,” said chemistry Professor Bryan Koivisto, who leads the program. “You’ve got to work with safety regulations, and you have to work with a number of international collaborators. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

In addition, all students gained practical experience conducting real experiments. “In their courses, their workload is heavy, but everything is very defined for them,” said Agard. “There are X number of chapters and X number of pages they have to read and follow for their instructions. Here they get a chance to see how it’s relatively easy to have an idea, but more challenging to actually turn it into an experiment that can work in the constraints of the lab.”

The Student Space Flight Experiments Program (SSEP) is undertaken by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the USA and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, internationally, in partnership with Nanoracks, LLC. This on-orbit educational research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks, LLC, which is working in partnership with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.

To learn more about Ryerson’s SSEP project, go to www.ryerson.ca/cab/SSEP, or follow along @RyersonSSEP.