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This month's STEM Spotlight features Jill Marconi's microgravity project with Sphero BOLT.

By Jill Marconi, Poland Middle School

A chance to have my students complete real-world research?  Who would turn that down?  Even better, what if that research involves creating an experiment that will be tested in microgravity? Game on!

My students at Poland Middle School in Poland, Ohio, said yes to this challenge. This exciting opportunity came to us from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium’s (WSGC)Embedded Teacher Program. The Embedded Teacher Program is a partnership between the WSGC and the ZERO-Gravity Corporation to provide opportunities for middle and high school teachers to develop and fly small experiments and demonstrations on a parabolic flight. Parabolic flights provide periods of sustained microgravity for testing spaceflight technologies, training astronauts, and performing experiments. 

In May of this year, I applied for the Embedded Teacher Program. In August, I was notified that I had been accepted into the program along with nine other educators.  In September of 2022, we met in Kenosha, WI with Dr. Kevin Crosby and an outstanding team of educators, including the National Space Society and students from Carthage College to learn about microgravity and how our students could develop experiments that could be tested on the ZERO-Gravity plane. 

After a whirlwind weekend, I returned to my classroom with a lot to share. I explained to my students that one of the challenges NASA is facing and the Carthage College students are researching is the problems surrounding rocket propellent behavior in microgravity.  The problem being that in microgravity, the fuel in the propellant tank does not remain at the bottom of the tank where it feeds the engine. Instead, in the microgravity environment, surface tension becomes the most powerful force, which means the fuel creeps up the sides of the tank and an air bubble called ullage floats around and can cause air to get to the engine.

My students decided that if the college students were working on a solution, they wanted to do the same. We did lots of hands-on experiments about surface tension, adhesion/cohesion, and capillary action. All of these concepts are important to understand in order to solve the problem at hand.

One day, we took a break from our research in order to clear our minds.  We decided to work with our classroom set of Sphero BOLTs.  The project we worked on was to create an attachment to our BOLTs that would travel along with them. These attachments would have a “cargo hold” where they could add cargo as their programmed BOLTs traveled a designated path. At first, my students could not picture how they would accomplish the task.  After sorting through lots of recycled material like empty duct tape rolls, yogurt cups, string, etc., students were on their way. They loved driving and programming BOLTs. They particularly love projects that combine programming and building. This type of learning allows students to hone their problem-solving and creativity skills. I love when the clean up alarm rings and students shout, “Nooooooo!” This is authentic student engagement to me!  

One day during the project, a student dropped a Sphero BOLT on the floor.  He was so worried he had broken it. I explained that the shells are very sturdy (an important feature for the classroom). I told my students that the BOLTs could even run in water.  A few minutes later, a group of students came to me and asked if we could try to use the Sphero BOLTs in our microgravity experiment. Wow! What a great idea! Our experiment proposal was born.

My students came up with an awesome proposal. Could the movement of a Sphero BOLT in a fuel tank, help break the surface tension of the fuel that has moved up the walls?  They got to work. We had 12 groups of students testing different attachments they added to the BOLTs that might help to break the surface tension. Students came up with ideas from pipe cleaners to pasta! They wrote a program that would keep the BOLT constantly moving around the tank. Next, they added the different attachments, and finally we did some classroom drop tests. The drop tests involved dropping our simulated fuel tanks with the moving Sphero BOLTs to get a few seconds of microgravity. We worked together to develop our proposal and hypothesis.  

We have now submitted our final proposal to the WSGC and are waiting to hear if our experiment will fly. I think it says a lot about Spheros that my students enjoy working with them enough that they wanted to include them in their experiment. The fact that the Spheros are driveable and programmable makes them a flexible, critical-thinking tool for my students. Other awesome features of Sphero BOLT include being super sturdy, waterproof, and let’s face it; kids love things that light up and can be programmed to make sounds. My students have recently acquired four new Sphero BOLTs. They are most excited about the light matrix. They are excited to see what sensor data they can display from our experiment.  Now that we have submitted our proposal, we are anxiously waiting to hear if our proposal has been accepted.  If it is, the experiment will fly sometime this spring.  

Stay tuned for more information!


About the Author:

Jill Marconi has been teaching in the Poland School System in Poland, OH since 2006. She has taught 7th and 8th grade math and science. In 2015, she developed and implemented a STEM program for grades 5-8 at Poland Middle School. 

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