From Lime Kiln Middle School to the final frontier

They use words most likely to be heard at a Scripps National Spelling Bee: chryseobacterium, aquaticum or trypticase.

They envision careers in medicine, they enjoy math and science, and — between juggling schedules that include school, music and sports — they recently collaborated on a project that's headed for the International Space Station.

One can only imagine what accomplishments are in store for Greg Nelson, Josh Choi, Sophia Novacic and Ryan Olsen when they reach high school.

The eighth-graders at Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton recently designed a microgravity experiment that's one of 17 to be conducted by astronauts aboard the space station this spring.

The project, "The Effect of Microgravity on Chryseobacterium Aquaticum Growth," was among more than 1,400 submissions nationwide as part of the national Student Space Flight Experiments Program.

It marks the second time in as many years that a Howard County public school has crafted a project that captured top honors in a competition involving the space station. Last year, students in River Hill High School's advanced computer science classes won a worldwide high school robotics competition that involved programming International Space Station satellites.

The Lime Kiln students say they chose the chryseobacterium aquaticum project because they felt it had a good chance to produce interesting results in space.

"We like the chryseobacterium family because all of them could survive in harsh conditions," said Sofia. "Since our project goal was solely to isolate the factor of microgravity, we wanted to eliminate every other possible reason it could divert from that."

After consulting with microbiologists, the students discovered a strain of the bacteria that exists in a reservoir in South Korea, and Josh said his parents helped get a sample by working with South Korean officials. The bacteria, he said, is now en route to the U.S.

"First, the bacteria is going to be in a dormant phase, and that's how it's going to be shipped to the launching site," Greg said.

He said once the bacteria is in space, it will be mixed with nutrients, then its growth will be monitored and measured.

Students who were interested in the competition began learning about forces and motion in science class in mid-September, then broke into teams to come up with research proposals. In addition to Lime Kiln, students from Wilde Lake and Hammond middle schools also created projects.

Mary Weller, the Howard school system's coordinator for secondary science, said 530 eighth-graders from across the school system designed and wrote a total of 129 proposals for the competition. Students in Howard participated via a $20,000 grant from the state Space Grant Consortium.

"We have emphasized to all of the students that this work is groundbreaking," Weller said. "This is the sort of learning that we all get excited about."

"The students who designed the project were in grade eight physical science, but they were participating in deep learning about topics not traditionally included in that curriculum. They proposed studying growth and development of a variety of organisms."

In November, a committee of educators and science and engineering professionals selected one proposal from each school to submit to a national selection committee. The entries by Hammond and Wilde Lake students received honorable mention, and Lime Kiln made the national cut.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program was launched about three years ago to encourage students from middle schools through four-year colleges to craft experiments to fly in low-earth orbit aboard the space station.

Many students in the county learn about the International Space Station during elementary school, and their passion for science often dates back further.

"Growing up, all my bedtime stories were medical, so I think that's what I'm going to do with my life," said Sofia, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Danica Novacic, an internal medical director.

The four said not all their fellow students share their love of science. They've told schoolmates about their project but often don't elaborate.

"Basically, I just say that it's got bacteria, and we're sending it in space, and it's to test the affects of microgravity on bacteria," Ryan said. "I don't usually go into detail about the pronunciations."

And though they speak like seasoned scientists, the students say learning the terminology wasn't easy.

"At first it was very hard pronouncing it all," said Sofia. "Sometimes we still make mistakes. But we've had to explain to our teachers and ask questions, which was very helpful."

Science teachers Ella Jordan and Lauren Landerman, who served as facilitators for the Lime Kiln project, said they hope the students carry away the lesson that science involves group learning and teamwork.

Landerman said she also hopes the students recognize that "with science, it is not a beginning and an end. It's an ongoing, continuing process that contains a lot of trial and error, research, experiments … [then] go back and do it all over again."

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