Editorial: A chance to do real science

Published in The Hindu on November 3, 2011

If doing real science is the best and most enjoyable way to learn the subject, a unique opportunity awaits students — designing before December 7 an experiment to be tested in microgravity. The chosen experiment will be performed in 2012 by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The students will not be involved in conducting the research, and their role will be restricted to producing a two-minute video of the test. However, they will be required to follow the rigours of structuring an experiment, as full-fledged scientists do: from raising a novel scientific question in the field of biological or physical sciences to stating the hypothesis and the manner in which the experiment should be conducted; they are even required to state the expected outcome. Exciting rewards await the winners. The research of the two global winners one from each age group — 14-16 years and 17-18 years — will be live streamed worldwide on YouTube, and the winners could be individuals or teams. They will also be able to take a zero-G flight, and either tour the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) facilities and watch the launch of the rocket carrying their experiments, or experience astronaut training in Start City in Russia once they turn 18. And there are rewards galore for the six winners, one from each age group, from the three regions — the Americas; Europe, Middle East, and Africa; and Asia-Pacific.

The initiative presented by YouTube and Lenova, in cooperation with three space agencies — NASA, JAXA, and the European Space Agency (ESA) — will go beyond igniting a passion for science. The live webcast of the experiments will take the message far and wide and they could well be a splendid learning tool. The open science will serve as a rare window on how the real thing is done. Space agencies have been very good at finding imaginative and generous ways of engaging young minds with the subject in a high-cost field. In February 2011, ESA launched two sounding rockets, REXUS 9 and 10, carrying students’ experiments, and more launches are scheduled for 2012. NASA’s Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, launched in June 2010, has carried out several experiments designed by students. Since 2009, the Indian Space Research Organisation has been helping university graduates build satellites, and has carried them to orbits. The significance of such initiatives goes beyond space research. There is a compelling need to engage with, and whip up, children’s interest in science — at a time when the number of teenagers opting for a degree and career in science is declining sharply not just in India but in many developed countries too.