Columbia middle schooler Sarah Daly, 12, is one of four finalists in the junior category of the NASA and American Society of Mechanical Engineers 3D Space Container Challenge.
"We found out about the contest over the summer," said Sarah's mother, Catherine Daly. "I thought that it would be nice for the kids to do something constructive during the summer instead of wasting their brains. I showed it to all of my four kids, and my 5-year-old couldn't really do too much, but they all thought it was so cool."
Sarah entered the junior contest, open to children ages 5 to 12, by using free software provided on the Future Engineers website to design a model of a 3D printable space container. Future Engineers, an organization sponsored by NASA and ASME, regularly hosts challenges for young innovators.
The 3D Space Container Challenge is the second in a series of 3D space challenges for K-12 students aligned with NASA's testing of 3D printing capabilities on the International Space Station, according to a press release. Last year NASA and ASME challenged students to create 3D printable space tools.
"Astronauts need containers of all kinds - from advanced containers that can study fruit flies to simple containers that collect Mars rocks or store an astronaut's food," read an announcement on the 3D Space Container Challenge website. "The ability to 3D print containers in space - on demand - will let humans venture farther into space. That's why we are challenging students to start designing for space now."
"Once we downloaded the software, Sarah just came up with the design by herself," Daly said. "She got no guidance or instruction or discussion from us."
Sarah designed a container to hold and grow fruit flies that can be used by astronauts to conduct experiments.
"When I saw her design, I was stunned by how clearly she has a mind for engineering," Daly said.
Sarah's design comes with assembly instructions and a description of its features: "To allow Astronauts to separate generations, refill food, and clean the container, the food tray is removable. To remove simply slide up the red lid, pull out the food tray with the eggs and larvae in it and cover the food tray with the lid stored under the box."
For the final round of judging, Sarah was interviewed on Monday by a panel of four NASA staff members, including astronaut Nicole Stott.
Criteria for judging include, "Innovation and Creativity of the Solution," and "Containers ability to advance human space exploration, and "Ability communicate the design through the text description and/or finalist interview."
When asked about her favorite part of the interview, Sarah said, "I got to ask the astronaut a question. I asked her how she came to be an astronaut after being an aquanaut."
Sarah is an avid swimmer, said her mother, Catherine, so she was excited to meet an astronaut who also happens to be an undersea explorer.
"She said that she was an aquanaut first, and that that was training to be an astronaut," Sarah said.
When asked about the most difficult part of the interview, Sarah said, "One of them said that fruit fly larvae are very, very small, and apparently they're smaller than the air holes that I had in my design."
"But I'm not sure if it's possible to use a 3D printer to create an environment that provides oxygen and does not allow larvae to escape," she added. "Extra parts would be necessary."
Contests winners will be announced on Thursday afternoon, according to Future Engineers Founder and Director Deanne Belle.
As a finalist in the junior category (ages five to 12), Sarah won a scholarship for one week of space camp in Huntsville, Alabama. If chosen as the junior contest winner, Sarah will win a 3D printer for her school, Rockbridge Academy in Millersville. Sarah started 7th grade at Rockbridge this fall and previously was homeschooled.
Sarah, who turns 13 on Thursday, is not sure what she wants to be when she grows up, or if she wants to work at NASA one day.
"I enjoy math in school," she said. "I did enjoy making the thing for the contest. But I don't know."