Sparking the minds of young scientists

Space Labs inspire students, honor JFK and the Apollo mission

Students working with the Space Station Explorers kit, part of the JFK Space Lab Explorers program. (Photo: SSEP/NCESSE)

The iceberg is melting.

A young would-be scientist reaches out to the International Space Station, asking for a photo when its orbit passes overhead the next day. Later, she downloads the picture and compares it to one from last year to figure out how quickly the iceberg is shrinking.

Kids and teens are conducting experiments like these across the country. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon mission, Raytheon and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation have launched JFK Space Labs in Boys & Girls Clubs of America nationwide, and donated labs to five schools named after President Kennedy. In addition, schools nationwide can access a free set of experiments, including the popular “EarthKAM.”

But this isn’t just youth STEM education — it’s real science.

“I bet you went to a school where they had a bio lab or chemistry lab, but I bet you didn’t go to a school that had a space lab,” said Steven Rothstein, executive director of the JFK Library Foundation. “One of the things that’s important to our foundation and to Raytheon is STEM education for students ... and the International Space Station is also doing so many things internationally.”

The International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory helped to design the labs and experiments. Modeled after its own Space Station Explorers program, the labs carry on Kennedy’s legacy and his spirit of inspiration.

The experiments are varied. At the Boys & Girls Club, kids are growing seeds that have been in space in “Tomatosphere,” studying how animals react in zero gravity in “Orion’s Quest,” and requesting photos of our changing world in “EarthKAM.” And while they’re also listening to astronauts on the ISS read aloud STEM-based books in “Story Time From Space,” the difference here is these experiments aren’t busywork.

The kids and teens are acting as citizen scientists, giving their data to researchers, scientists and astronauts to help grow mankind’s collective knowledge. To the teens in particular, doing something larger — like learning how to best grow food in space or the effects of climate change — is an eye-opening lesson that no career is off limits.

“As the kids are collecting data, they’re wondering if the seeds have been exposed to radiation, and if they grow faster or slower. To them it’s like, is this the Spider-Man of tomato plants?” said Susan Ciavolino, director of youth development program education and STEM for the Boys & Girls Clubs. “We do a lot of playing around and having fun in clubs and that’s awesome, but it feels different to be having fun while doing a task, you’re engaged. You’re doing something real.”

The programs are funded through a $1.5 million gift from Raytheon to the JFK Library Foundation. That includes providing schools and after-school programs nationwide with a curated set of free experiments, and the choice of these five schools to receive a JFK Space Lab at the start of the 2019–2020 school year:

•    John F. Kennedy Middle School, Woburn, Mass.
•    John F. Kennedy High School, Granada Hills, Calif.
•    John F. Kennedy High School, Denver, Colo.
•    Kennedy Middle School, Albuquerque, NM
•    John F. Kennedy Middle School, Grand Prairie, Texas

The five labs will include technology for advanced experiments in Earth, biology and computer science, and will be led by designated teachers with training and support from the ISS National Lab. Students will grow plants with special cameras and sensors, perform DNA analysis with professional equipment, and even venture outdoors with antennas and other software to attempt radio contact with the ISS and other entities.

But whether in Boys & Girls Clubs, a middle school or an after-school program, the JFK Space Lab programs all have one thing in common: They’re all helping young minds — and mankind — take that next leap forward.

“When Kennedy first established the moonshot and the vision of going to the moon and engaged so many companies, scientists and engineers, we watched as these amazing folks did their thing, but we weren’t able to be direct participants,” said Dan Barstow, senior education manager for ISS U.S. National Lab. “But now we’re having students directly participate in the space program, not just observe and dream, but contributing themselves.”

Published On: 07/16/2019
Last Updated: 09/26/2019