Cubes in Space – Year Two

What does magnetic putty, kinetic sand, aluminum, and carbon fiber have in common? These are all materials that will be tested on a NASA sounding rocket for Cubes in Space experiments.

For a second year in a row, my students have brainstormed, hypothesized, designed, and written proposals for experiments in 4×4 cm cubes. In our 7th grade science classes, we are primarily focused on earth and space science. We are fortunate to have an amateur astronomer who regularly visits our classroom to help us think beyond the classroom walls. This year we sent three science classes worth of “Cube” proposals for flight (test) consideration. We were excited to learn three cubes were selected for flight this summer.

International School Team Granted NASA Rocket Flight

Cubes in Space™ a program by idoodledu inc., in collaboration with NASA’s Langley Research Center, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility and Colorado Space Grant Consortium, offers global design competitions for students 11-18 years of age to develop STEAM-based experiments for launch into space.

Used in formal or informal learning environments, students and educators are exposed to engaging online content and activities in preparation for the design and development of an experiment to be integrated into a small cube. Throughout the experience, students develop key 21st century skills; communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

Since 2014, Cubes in Space has flown nearly 400 experiments representing 1,500 educators and over 20,000 students from 57 different countries. This year nearly 600 educators and thousands of students from 39 countries participated and proposed experiments for a space on a NASA sounding rocket or high-altitude scientific balloon mission.  A total of 160 experiments were selected and were designed by students from Australia, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Mexico, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, and the United States of America.  

The experiments will be launched via sounding rocket in late June 2017 from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia or by high-altitude scientific balloon in late summer 2017 from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico.

This year’s Cubes in Space experiments will be testing the extreme conditions and forces present in a sounding rocket on their materials. Students have taken note of their pre-flight material data and observations and they will be ready to analyze their materials once their cubes are returned in the fall. If asked, I suspect students will report the tricky part of their experiment was making sure the weight of the cube met the 64 grams (+/- 2 grams) requirement. The materials used in the cubes did not weigh very much, which meant they had to be creative about how to add ballast to their cube without affecting their experiment. Once the cubes were prepped with experimental materials, there were many smiles, high fives, and joyous laughter that the cubes measured within the acceptable weight range!

We are excited to mail our package of cubes to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. We are looking forward to the summer launch and our hypotheses will have to wait until this fall to be confirmed…or not.


Teacher in Space

More specifically, a Teacher Learning about Space Education 

Recently I was invited to a NASA & CASIS presentation about the International Space Station at the Microsoft Campus in Redmond, WA. As a science teacher, the nerd meter was off the charts, “What, me? Take an afternoon to listen about being in space? You bet!”

NASA and the International Space Station (ISS) exhibit have been on a “Destination Station” Northwest roadshow. The purpose of their presentation is to share the wealth of ISS information readily available and how companies and students can take advantage of ISS research opportunities. Small breakout Q&A sessions for the local STEM educator community provide time to talk and share. For me, the afternoon provided a list of NASA/ISS/CASIS connections for my curriculum next year. It was stated that the “possibilities are endless; the rewards could be outstanding,” and I couldn’t agree more.

CASIS, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, is a non-profit manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, and its aim is to create public awareness of National Lab research by making space science more accessible to the world. The US Lab on ISS is currently conducting research and development from big companies to small schools, with their focus ranging from STEM to life science to physical science. The question is, “Why do research on ISS at all?” The answer is supremely simple, the US Lab on ISS is like no other lab on Earth. The vantage, perspective, and conditions are not constrained by gravity. Experiments can be tested in a micro-gravity environment, thereby providing excellent environmental controls or removing the limiting factor of gravity. In the extreme conditions of space, forces and fluids will be less constrained, fluids will take a spherical shape, there is no “up” or “down” and sedimentation and solidification are not determined by gravity. There is much to learn, test, discover, and invent in a home laboratory that is away from home.

Astronaut Mike Barratt spent 6 months on ISS and shared a day in the life of living on the Space Station, traveling in both Shuttle Discovery and Russian Soyuz. It was “Zero to 15,000 mph in 8 minutes 45 seconds for orbital velocity.”

The dominant factor of being on the ISS is weightlessness. Apparently it takes a bit of effort and time to coordinate moving around, from flying “superman style” to using hands to locomote. I was surprised to learn how big the Space Station is, particularly when you shift your thinking from a traditional “square footage” to a 3D or cubic footage view. All available space is utilized and there is no up or down. It is a funny idea (prank) that if a crew member was carefully guided to the middle of a compartment, ensuring they were not in motion and where they could not touch walls, then they would be stuck. In micro-gravity, Newton’s laws of motion (or lack of motion) are in affect.

Since Mike is also a medical doctor, he spoke of anthropometry, recycling urine to water, and various medical tests and blood draws. In space, the neutral body position is not straight and thus requires rethinking work and sleep stations. In space, the internal organs are not affected by gravity and thus their positions are changed. In space, toilets require directed airflow since there is no gravity…let that sink in. In space, bone and muscle mass will decrease unless astronauts exercise daily with countermeasures, since there is no gravity to lift or move your body’s own weight against.

Astronaut Mike Barratt

Astronaut Mike Barratt

As a science teacher, learning more about ISS meant learning there is a wealth of student opportunities for my science classroom. There is so much happening on the station that the challenge is narrowing down which lesson, research, or connection to utilize. To assist with this, I had the pleasure of meeting with Pete Hasbrook from the ISS Program Science Office to discuss NASA and ISS resources available to educators. I am excited to spend time organizing my curriculum to make room for these research opportunities for my students next year.

MS Edu NASA-ISS Pete and Cheryl Chat

ISS Chat with NASA’s Pete Hosbrook

For more information about NASA or ISS or CASIS in Education go to;





Fostering Project Collaborative Learning

My middle school science classes often just blow me away with their creativity and energy. To capture this, I strive to foster collaborative and creative projects. Specifically, this year, I have been setting up science projects that require students to productively function in teams, more specifically to shine within a team.

Project 1 – Step 1

For the first big group project, I offered students their choice of medium to create a weather “lesson.” Although there was choice in presentation, the group worked in a traditional project team. The students were excited to try out new tech for an audio-visual “Ted-Ed” style weather lesson, but without specific work to coach the soft skills of team collaboration, there were the usual pitfalls of who does what work, how much work, and whether the work was of good quality. The product of the “lessons” was amazing in the style and variety of creativity, but the downside was we didn’t work on improving how the team collaborative functions.

Project 2 – Step 2

The next big group project team experience gave us the reason for the next step in team collaboration a “Team Contract.” Students were to write a proposal for a small cube experiment to travel on a space flight. As students choose their teams, I asked them to review, discuss, and define their requirements to be a successfully functioning team. When we had group class time to work on our “Cubes in Space” projects, students referred to their Team Contract when a team member didn’t meet their work requirements. Students began to hone the essential skills of collaboration and communication that are so vital in our everyday world.

Project 3 – Step 3

Our current project, an Earth Safety Challenge PSA, takes all of the above and moves it beyond team collaboration to group creativity. Students initially completed background research on local earth science events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis. Students were grouped into 3 large “company” teams based on their research area. Their task is to create a company and assign the roles of research scientists, engineers, media specialists, and project managers. Their job is to create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to inform the public about the science and safety of their assigned earth event. This project is majority student designed and managed. Students are using a variety of skills, research, technology, modeling, communication, collaboration, and creativity. I am so impressed with their level of positive engagement, motivation, and the direction of each company team to produce a creative and effective earth science PSA. Although I can’t wait to the see the final products, I am already extremely proud of the collaborative learning in which these students are engaged.

Lesson Details If you’re interested in the specifics of our Earth Safety Challenge Project, please see my lesson plans here: Earth Safety Challenge Project Lesson Plan

Lesson technology – for this project we utilized the following technology;

Since we are a 1:1 school (students are issued district laptops for the school year), we are comfortable with utilizing technology in our classroom. Class notes, agendas, and group project work is all conducted in OneNote. The final Earth Safety Challenge PSA will be posted in for other grade level science classes to review and offer feedback. We also use Class Policy to group team members and monitor technology on task time. Modeling in Minecraft is an awesome way for students to use their analytic thinking in a creative format to make a 3D model – of anything. Making use of student voice was easy with FlipGrid and Forms. FlipGrid offers accessible technology for students to video respond and reply, it is fun and informative. Forms provides an easy means to access or survey online, providing accessible data to share. My students are using a variety of tech tools to make their PSA presentations, including PowerPoint, Office Mix, Sway, and video, to be posted in class collections in If used appropriately, technology can enable and amplify student knowledge and voice on any project. Totally amazing collaboration.


Cubes in Space – version 1.5

My email to my students stated, “the cubes have arrived…” and in an after school flurry of fun, fascination, and excitement the box containing two cubes that flew into space was unceremoniously opened.


Let’s open our Cubes!


This is the second school year my 7th grade science classes have participated in the Cubes in Space program. Students are provided an opportunity to propose an experiment to be launched into space on a NASA rocket or balloon. The project requires students to design an experiment that will fit inside a 4cm sized cube. If the experiment proposal is accepted, the students’ cubes will be launched via sounding rocket from NASA Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia in late June 2017 or on a high altitude balloon launched from the NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in August 2017.

Last year was our first year to participate and we were fortunate to have four student proposals accepted. The first two cubes launched on the sounding rocket the first week after school released for the summer. The second two cubes were scheduled to launch on the research balloon in late August but the launch was weather delayed until early October this school year. Although we are still patiently awaiting the final two cubes to review and analyze data, my students have shared their experiences with our local newspaper. It was delightful to hear what my students learned about the scientific process and the amount of collaboration and communication that is necessary to be successful with completing their experimental designs and proposals.

Bellevue students send science experiments to space

To be completely honest, it was extremely difficult to not open the delivered parcel that contained the first two (rocket) cubes this summer. I needed to be patient and wait until school resumed and let my student scientists open the package first. Since then my (now former, who are 8th grade) students have been periodically checking in at lunch or after school to provide updates on their summary and presentation of results, as this is a requirement of the Cubes in Space project.


Just delivery – Cubes from rocket launch


This year’s new 7th grade science students have just been introduced to the Cubes in Space project. We have begun the initial work of gathering ideas for objects that could be tested in space. A range of questions from “What materials will NASA allow?” “How much does gravity decrease as the rocket launches?” to even “What is a variable?” There is genuine interest and excitement to think scientifically about what can be tested in space.

A recent comment from one of last year’s student said it best, “It was the highlight of science last year.” By the smiles and questions from this year’s students, it looking like Cubes in Space is on track to be a science highlight again.

The Lightbulb Moment

During the summer teachers take time to review lessons, collaborate with other educators, set up classrooms, buy supplies and review new curriculum and applications. And as such, I have been talking with the folks at Lifeliqe, an amazing ed-tech company focused on 3D STEM models.

We set up a skype call to discuss piloting Lifeliqe in my classroom this fall, discussing the benefits of utilizing 3D models and the augmented reality behind the models.  During our conversation, we talked about the “light bulb moment” all teachers hope to occur in their classrooms. The moment when students begin to say “Ahh, I get it now” or “Ohh, that makes sense” which in turn makes their teachers smile brightly. We all want our students to succeed. So in asking ourselves how do we spark a light bulb moment, we must also ask;

* Do teachers create the initial spark?

* Do we have to first make a student connection and that is what causes the spark?

* Do we need to have fantastic lectures and applications to create a spark?

The questions made me think about my own student light bulb moments and the order of events necessary for these moments to grow to full content comprehension. I’m curious, what do other educators think about sparking a lightbulb moment? For me, in a middle school classroom, most students need to feel a connection to the teacher. Middle school years are most notably an emotional period of time, students need to feel connected and respected. Teachers need to create an environment that fosters connections and respect but also builds up high expectations and accountability to learn content, organization, and skills necessary to move forward to the next level of learning.

I imagine connections are made from the teacher’s passion and excitement to teach students their subject area. It makes me giggle when I tell adults I am a middle school science teacher they either respond with “Oh my, I REMEMBER what I was like back then” or “Oh, I LOVED science because I had a really great time.” Typically, adults remember their middle school experience rather than the content learned during those years. How cool would it be to remember the experience AND the learning? How do we create more lightbulb memories that stay lit over time?

The connections that are made in the classroom are the catalyst for learning. With technology at our fingertips, teachers have access to a multitude of cool applications and heaps of crazy knowledge curriculum. If fully utilized these applications and curriculum can be the switch of the lightbulb – the initial “Ah-ha” sparking moment that ignites student comprehension.  So as I prepare for fall, I am looking forward to piloting new NGSS aligned curriculum, working on collaborating with other science and technology educators and trying out Lifeliqe’s 3D models. I am excited to the see the spark in my students’ eyes when they use their fingertips to spin a cell model on their screens and fully analyze the organelles. I wonder if they will feel an Ironman “Tony Stark” moment when they create an image on their laptop screen with their head inside an atom? Or will they exclaim in glee that they understand the how the knee works when they overlay the leg anatomy and motion over their own?

I hope in the future my students will tell me that they remember my class AND that they have never lost the bright glow of the lightbulb moment.

Changing the Conversation

Changing the Conversation

Over the course of the typical school year students ask a myriad of “what do I need to do for an A on this assignment?” questions. This year the conversation changed in our classroom.  Instead the questions became “how do I explain molecules to first graders?” and “Can first graders even understand what a molecule is?” Students became teachers, teaching their own mastery of the content. Changing the audience changed the conversation which changed the focus of their learning.

How Did the Conversation Change?

Traditionally science lessons begin with a lecture of content material, such as the amount of energy in a given state of matter. Students dutifully write down the concept, the vocabulary, work on the worksheet, and the lesson is learned.  This is way I learned it, so this is the way you learn it; its tradition. Although this may be tradition, it may not be the way to learn, to remember, and be engaged with the science in the world around us. We are science do-ers, we learn by doing. Watch any toddler figure out the world around them–they try, experiment, re-try, and then show us what they have learned. The same applies to us and our students. Once we try something for ourselves, we master what we learn by showing or explaining it to others. Students are excellent teachers. And when students have technology as a tool, they are immeasurably creative when it comes to teaching others. Kids get a kick out of watching, reacting, and listening to their voices. It’s a powerful tool of teaching.

Science Teaching and Learning

A major focus of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is science is central to our lives. The key to science education is to develop in-depth science content understanding and develop skills of communication, collaboration, inquiry, and problem solving. There are many ways to help students deepen their science thinking and understanding. Over the summer I participated with the Partnership for Ambitious Science Teacher Leaders (PASTL) whose goal is to support teachers in developing rigorous and equitable science learning in their own classrooms.

Over the course of this year, I have been working to help students make their thinking and understanding visual.  Students have to begin with a science wondering or question and then build on their ideas, build on their understanding. Student talk is essential to this process of learning. Students become engaged in the science. Through a series of online simulated labs, such as those found at ExploreLearning Gizmos or University of Colorado’s PhET interactive simulations, students begin to build their foundational understanding. Add a few in-class labs, such as working with oobleck (corn starch and water) or with heat, dry ice and water, and students see for themselves all three states of matter in a few moments.

Students as Teachers, Changing Their Questions

So what did we do to change the conversation? Instead of the traditional lecture and notes, my 7th grade students created states of matter science lessons for 1st graders. They changed the conversation by first mastering the content for themselves and then creating interactive visual lessons for a different audience. They began asking questions like “What will a younger audience understand?” “How could they explain the difference between a solid and liquid to a 1st grader?” “Would the 1st graders understand what they were trying to teach?” “Would it make sense to them?” and “How can we explain it better?”

Utilizing Technology to Master Science Concepts

We are fortunate to be a 1:1 laptop school where each student receives a district issued device for the school year. The fact that we have technology at our fingertips made it easier, but what we did could be accomplished in a computer lab as well. We utilized Skype for communications with the 1st graders, made videos or used Microsoft Sway and PowerPoint Office Mix as presentation tools, and as a platform for sharing. After discussing and reviewing the key concepts about the states of matter, students made a list of learning objectives and determined the “story” or theme they would utilize to teach solids, liquids, and gases. We Skyped with our 1st graders, introduced ourselves, and the 1st graders asked a few questions. Then we went to work, thinking of ways to engage and hook our young audience. Students had to come up with examples to demonstrate different states of matter and how the energy of the particles change between states.  Finally, students had to figure out how best to stay scientifically correct but simple enough for a 1st grader to understand. Once the video, Sway, or Mix was finished, students posted their work on to share with our young audience.

We Skyped again after the 1st graders watched and talked about our lessons. We learned which lessons they liked best, we answered their questions about how an object could change from a liquid to solid, and we also learned that sometimes 1st graders understand that a rock is just rock and we shouldn’t make it too complicated. The outcomes were positive; the 7th graders mastered their understanding of states of matter and the 1st graders reported they loved our lessons and the variety and creativity.

The Conversation Has Changed

This concept is codified in a 2012 NPR story, Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool, in which the professor realized his students were not learning effectively from his lecture but instead responded well to real-world demonstrations. The same is true for my students using technology to teach others. The classroom landscape has been slowly evolving over the last few years, the conversations have changed. Students are doing more to master their own learning.