PHARR – A microgravity experiment designed by a team of 11th grade students from PSJA Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School was selected as a flight experiment for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Mission 13 to the International Space Station (ISS). Their experiment, which is the fifth from the school district to be selected for the program, and the only one from the Rio Grande Valley, is expected to launch later this year from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Designed to inspire and engage the next generation of scientists and engineers, the SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture. Started in June 2010, it was designed as a model U.S. National STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education program. The program typically serves 300 students across communities in every facet of authentic research of their own design.

The students in the flight team include Joahna Evasco, Nolberto Cortez, Rachel Martinez and Diego Tijerina with Medical Microbiology Teacher Roxanne Ruelas as their facilitator. They are all part of PSJA T. Jefferson T-STEM ECHS, a campus at PSJA ISD that focuses on graduating students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

According to Rachel Martinez, who along with her teammates is pursuing an Associate Degree from South Texas while at PSJA, the experiment proposal was inspired by the need to help develop a way to grow spinach in space for astronauts.

"Our experiment studies the impact of microgravity on the growth of spinach to help astronauts survive in space,'” said the 16-year-old of their experiment titled, What are the effects of microgravity on the cellular growth of spinacia oleracea? "It’s so exciting to be selected as a Finalist. Thank you to everyone who made this possible. From our teachers to our administrators.”

For their Teacher Facilitator Roxanne Ruelas, seeing her students grow throughout the process is one of the most rewarding aspects of competing in the program.

“It’s great that these opportunities are available to our students,” Ruelas said. “This experience has helped me grow as an educator and get to know my students more.”

In addition to the selected finalist team, PSJA is one of five communities in Texas and a total of 38 involved in SSEP Mission 13 from the United States, Canada and Brazil.

As a participating community, SSEP Mission 13 to ISS will provide PSJA students with a real research mini-laboratory capable of supporting a single microgravity experiment, and all launch services to fly the mini-lab in space and return it safely to Earth for harvesting and analysis.

Besides the selected flight team, PSJA ISD had two other team proposals make it as Finalists.