On Monday over 1300 students from 42 different high schools participated in the culmination of a two-year program, competing for a place on a microgravity laboratory to be sent to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket. Over the course of the day the experiments were inspected by space experts from government, academic, and private sectors who were looking not just for sound science and feasibility but also for experiments with the potential to change the future of humanity both on Earth and in space exploration.
Each year these brilliant young teams come up with their own experiments, conduct their own research, and meet with experts in the fields they decide to focus on. But how can you teach a 14 year-old so much complex information? Most STEM fields develop so quickly from year to year that they put Moore’s Law to shame.
In the past this would have indeed been a challenge because the education system viewed children’s minds as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge through lectures and rote learning. The SpaceLab program takes a different attitude; namely, that the best way to learn is by doing! Using project based learning (PBL) students in the program learn how to think critically, how to manage their time, how to work in a team – to put it simply, the kids learn how to learn!
The Ramon Foundation was created by the late Rona Ramon in memory of her son Assaf, a fighter pilot killed in a training accident, and her husband Ilan who was one of the seven STS 107 astronauts who perished when the Colombia Shuttle disintegrated while reentering Earth’s atmosphere. Rona was able to overcome her grief and create the foundation to honour the legacies of Ilan and Assaf in a way that has led to dozens of educational programs which reach over 100,000 students each year.
Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege to teach and mentor some of these students as part of the SpaceLab program which builds up to the final experiment through a series of PBL missions that are each named after one of the Columbia crew. This included producing YouTube videos about scientific concepts, writing and uploading Wikipedia entries – which we discovered requires a surprising amount of technical knowledge – and conducting a series of hobby rocket launch experiments.
By now some of you might be wondering what happened on Monday. Was the experiment that my students proposed, which focused on measuring the survival and behaviour of embryonic stem cells in microgravity, selected as one of the winners?
Short answer – No. Long answer – It doesn’t matter because it was never the point.
About an hour before the judges announced their decision I walked around to listen to what the other teams were proposing and I was honestly astounded. These kids were talking about things like cellular differentiation and the deterioration of muscle tissue. Let’s not forget that preparation for the experiment started little more than 2 months ago.
That is why it doesn’t matter that my students didn’t get selected, because this program isn’t about winning. It’s about the tools they’ve gained along the way like project management, critical thinking, teamwork, and the ability to look at any problem as challenge that can be solved with careful planning, hard work, and persistence.
I was fortunate enough to have met Rona several times through my work with the Ramon Foundation. She knew that some of the most important things in life aren’t physically tangible and was known to say:
“I have no interest in building bricks and stones to commemorate my loved ones but rather in commemorating their spirit through education”.
None of this would have been possible without her unbreakable spirit and the countless hours spent by her and all of the incredible staff at the Ramon Foundation working to change the future of humanity one student at a time.
Click here to learn more about SpaceLab and the Ramon Foundation
This article was originally published on Stardom in January 2019 - This year the Ramon SpaceLab final event will be held remotely in accordance with COVID19 health and safety regulations.