By Kennth Chang
Published: 10 October 2011
Make a two-minute video. Get an experiment flown to the International Space Station.
YouTube and Lenovo, the computer manufacturer, announced on Monday a science contest called SpaceLab for students around the world ages 14 to 18, and it is not quite like any other science contest.
For one, the students, who can enter individually or in teams of up to three, do not actually have to perform any experiments. Instead, they will make videos to pitch ideas for experiments that could be conducted in the zero-gravity environs of the space station.
The two winning entries will be built and flown there, and astronauts will conduct a demonstration that will be broadcast to classrooms via YouTube.
“The headline idea was, ‘let’s create the world’s largest, coolest classroom in space,’ ” said Zahaan Bharmal, director of European marketing for Google, which owns YouTube.
These will not be the first student experiments to get to the space station. Students at 12 school districts around the country are currently writing proposals for experiments to fly there next spring, part of a program run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education in Capitol Heights, Md. “It’s changing the way kids are looking at science,” said Jeff Goldstein, the center’s director. “I’m hoping that what we’re doing here is creating those magical moments for many of these students.”
Earlier this year, 27 student experiments, out of 1,027 proposals, flew on the last two space shuttle flights.
Those experiments were small — each about the size of a test tube — but meaningful. One, from seventh graders in Portland, Ore., tested the growth of protein crystals in microgravity, while another, from 10th graders in Omaha, was titled, “Honey as a Preservative on Long Duration Space Flights.”
“These students are being given the opportunity to do real research in orbit,” Dr. Goldstein said. “It’s not something cute.”
His program stems from an existing agreement between NASA and NanoRacks, a small company that owns laboratory space on the space station. The cost is $20,000 per school district, but the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education raised enough to pay for 21 of the 27 districts that took part.
Dr. Goldstein said that he hoped to fly two sets of experiments every year, and that the next opportunity for school districts to participate would be announced in a month.
NanoRacks has also sold space to a single school, Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif., which conducted a 30-day experiment in February looking at how basil, marigolds and Wisconsin fast plants, a relative of broccoli bred for classroom use, behaved in microgravity. (The seeds germinated, but did not grow much, possibly because of gases released from the sealant used to seal the box.)
“I’ve been able to see more of what a real-life science career would be like than if I had just gone through school and sat through the classes,” said Karen Lu, a junior at Valley Christian.
For the YouTube contest, NASA has signed an agreement with Space Adventures, a company in Vienna, Va., that is best known for arranging trips by space tourists to the space station. Space Adventures will act as a middleman to prepare the winning experiments for flight.
Mr. Bharmal came up with the idea when Google invited employees to suggest a marketing campaign. “When I was a teenager, 15 or 16, space was the thing that really inspired me,” said Mr. Bharmal, now 34.
Experiment proposals can cover science questions in biology or physics. Restrictions include no dangerous animals, no explosions and nothing sharp.
After the Dec. 7 deadline, entries will be whittled to 60 finalists, distributed among three geographical regions. For each region, there will be 10 finalists in the 14-to-16-year-old category and 10 in the 17-to-18-year-old category.
A popular vote among YouTube visitors will provide one-quarter of the final score. Also judging the finalists will be a panel of experts including Stephen W. Hawking, the physicist and cosmologist.
Google will the fly the regional winners to a ceremony in Washington next March, where two grand prize winners will be named. Those winners will get the choice of a trip to Japan to see the launching of their experiments or a trip to Russia for seven days of cosmonaut training, although for the latter, they would need to wait until they turned 18.