A group of West Ward Elementary School students received some high-powered advice on some high-powered science projects.

Richard Searfoss, an astronaut who has piloted multiple Space Shuttle missions and now works on the XCor Lynx suborbital vehicle project visited the Killeen school Nov. 21.

From the school library, Searfoss spoke with West Ward third- through fifth-graders as well as a high school astronomy class at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire through Skype.

After answering questions about his background as an Air Force colonel, NASA astronaut and the 10-year effort to build a suborbital vehicle, Searfoss met with West Ward students designing microgravity experiments.

West Ward is a NASA Explorer School with a long relationship with the space community and principal Maureen Adams is scheduled to fly once the Lynx is completed.

Ten students are working on microgravity experiments to compete for a place on a future flight.

After hearing their ideas for experiments from students, the astronaut went to each student group to answer questions about design and scientific method.

One group of students explained their plans to send Beta fish into suborbit to see how the reduced gravity might affect the way the creatures swim.

The astronaut said he’s seen fish in space and told the students he wasn’t going to give away the results, but pointed out variables such as light and presence of vibration.

Other groups showed plans to observe ants within colonies, sound travel using various music genres and effects on carbonated beverages.

With the beverage group, Searfoss challenged students to think through and experiment with buoyant forces.

“I’ve never seen a carbonated drink in space,” he said to the students.

“My hypothesis is the bubbles would be still.”

He urged all the groups to set up their experiments on the ground just like they would be onboard a spaceship to test for the single variable of lack of gravity.

The four student teams will complete preliminary work and pass along their progress to peers in the next lowest grade level.

“This is about getting kids excited about the inquiry process,” Searfoss explained. “It’s important for them to have inquiring, skeptical minds and not take everything at face value.

“They are learning to think and solve problems they don’t even know will exist,” he said.

“It’s pretty cool we have an astronaut here to help us,” said fifth-grader James Hankins, working on the experiment to observe ants in microgravity.

Thinking through scientific scenarios, the fifth-grader said he wondered about the possibility of robotic ants mining materials out of asteroids.

“Watching ants might help us create a place to live on another planet,” the student said.

Answering student questions about preparing for a career in space science, Searfoss pointed out that space travel would require medical doctors, geologists and engineers among many other specialties.

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