Minerva Students Win International Prize with ‘Out Of This World’ Science

Posted on February 24, 2022 by Minerva's Virtual Academy
Left: Oleg Shkarovskyy, Middle: Noah Deisges, Right: Jack Child, Deputy Head

Student duo’s experiment based around anti-bacterial slime has been chosen by the International Space School Educational Trust for practice and development by astronauts on the International Space Station

Out-of-this-World Changers

A team of two Minerva Virtual Academy students have rocketed to first place in a challenge run by the International Space School Educational Trust (ISSET), winning a prize that will see their science experiment conducted by astronauts at the International Space Station, as well as gaining them a trip to Florida witness the launch.

The duo – 14-year-olds Oleg and Noah – entered the competition as part of Minerva Virtual Academy’s unique World Changers Programme – a cross- and extra-curricular programme that partners students with select institutions to enrich their curriculum with contemporary, real-world explorations. The students made their way through various stages and deadlines to submit their finished idea, which was eventually named as the winner in January of this year.

Their prize-winning experiment was designed to tackle one of the most tricky aspects of life on board a space-ship: how to keep things clean in a zero-gravity environment. Judges, scientists and astronauts alike deemed the duo’s experimental hypothesis for a solution to be exciting, practical and worthy enough to be flown into space and tested out as a potential solution at the International Space Station itself.

Slime to Get Serious…

The mission statement from ISSET for the competition was broad but inspiring: to come up with an experiment ‘to better life for mankind, on or off the planet’. There were, however, plenty of parameters that Noah and Oleg had to respond to when coming up with their submission, including the fact that the experiment had to be able to be conducted in a zero-gravity environment and fit inside the particular dimensions of a packing box to be fitted on the rocket.

The resilient duo were initially scuppered by a proposal involving plant-life, due to the fact that nothing live could be transported into space for the experiment due to the necessity for ‘minimal astronaut interaction’, as they are busy with many other tasks!

Undaunted by this initial false start, Oleg and Noah re-grouped and re-charged their determination. They set their sights on the challenge of cleanliness whilst travelling through space: it is, of course, difficult to keep things clean in a microgravity environment… 

Saving Space up in Space

“Due to the abnormal behaviour of water in microgravity, it makes the cleaning process tiring, time-consuming and without a guarantee of complete sanitisation,” said the pair in their proposal. “Crumbs from food, hairs and dead skin cells are also a problem in microgravity as they can contaminate every surface around us and even cause issues with electricals or get into astronauts eyes.”

Astronauts currently tend to use disposable wipes, liquid detergent and disposable plastic gloves, but these are neither environmentally nor packing-space friendly.

What, then, could be a solution to this sanitary conundrum? “This got us thinking of ways to clean surfaces using materials that can be reused. We came up with the idea of using a slime mixture with antibacterial properties. It’s possible to make this mixture using household items: it’s a product that already exists for the use of cleaning on Earth, but it hasn’t yet been tested in a microgravity environment.”

“We believe that this could be a much better cleaning solution as it would stick to the “dirt” and remove it from surfaces efficiently whilst also sanitising that surface. The slime would also be reusable when wiped clean and so would be a suitable solution to use for long periods. It would be particularly effective at cleaning more delicate areas (e.g. keyboards or buttons) with lots of grooves that might be time consuming to properly clean with a wipe alone.”

The student’s prize-winning experiment will now be tested to see whether it can save space in Space as well as conserving our environment back down here on Earth!

Slime-ing Up The Ladder

The eight-week World Changers Programme saw Noah and Oleg develop their idea with input from Jack Child – Minerva Virtual Academy’s  Deputy Head and Head of Chemistry – as well as from a team of Astronauts and Space Scientists at ISSET.

Week by week, the pair formed, sharpened and developed their hypothesis, which involved research into many different branches and disciplines. How would the experiment be beneficial to mankind? What was its historical context? And most importantly: could it all fit in that particular packing box? After meeting with the ISSET scientists over the summer last year, Oleg and Noah doggedly persisted where many other groups had dropped off, finally submitting their finished proposal at the end of October 2021.

‘ISSET were terrific at treating the students like real scientists,’ says Jack. ‘They met with every group that submitted, explaining to them the pros and cons and helping them to think outside the box… as well as inside the packing  box, on this particular occasion!’

Jack, who is also the two pupils’ mentor at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, was thrilled and very proud of their win. ‘These two worked exceptionally hard, giving up time across the Summer Holidays to keep working on their experiment. I’m so glad their hard work has been rewarded.’

Oleg, Year 11, studying from his home

‘It is actual rocket science!’

The Deputy Head explained how the prize and the World Changer’s Programme encourages a collaborative and creative level of work from students, which often takes them above and beyond the standard curriculum.

“I mean, it is actual rocket science!’ Jack laughs. ‘Normally I get questions from students that I’m comfortable answering, but these guys were working at such a level that encouraged me to do my own research, lessening the gap between teacher and student.’

‘I’m proud of the school, the kind of development and opportunities we can offer, and the calibre of students that are choosing to enrol, but most of all, I’m proud of Oleg and Noah’s excitement and enthusiasm.’ Mr Child received an email making hearty use of the Caps Lock from Noah when the pair found out they’d won in January: “WE DID IT!!! WE WON! OLEG AND I HAVE BOTH RECEIVED AN EMAIL FROM ISSET! THANK YOU!”

The Slime of Their Lives

Noah and Oleg are now preparing for the adventure of a lifetime: a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they will build and fine-tune their design, making any changes they need as the plan leaps off the page and into real life. 

Not only will they get to watch the launch that’ll carry their science up into space, they will also have accommodation, flights and spending money catered for, as well as a trip to the state’s famous theme parks, where, no doubt, some rocket-like rides will be sampled: all in the name of science, of course…

Zero-Gravity Ambition

Meanwhile, 2022’s new World Changers Programme has just launched again at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, with a new batch of excited Year 9 and 10s starting on their ISSET launch ideas, as well as tackling some of the big contemporary issues of the day, such as Human Rights.

As well as an introduction to the competition and a virtual tour around the international space station from Jack, Minerva students will be treated to a talk from Noah and Oleg, designed to inspire their peers to reach for the stars.

‘ISSET works so well with World Changers,’ says Jack. ‘It’s an incredible prize and an incredible feat to have won it. Who knows where they’ll go next!’