Kyle Chapo and Isaac Wells will have homework over the summer. Fortunately for them, it's homework of the coolest variety.

The senior and junior from Lincoln's Zoo School will do experiments on algae oil production at the same time astronauts do them in zero g's aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The shuttle program's final trip into space is set to launch July 8.

The Lincoln students' experiment was chosen out of four proposals from Lincoln schools and will join about 20 others from across the nation aboard the shuttle.

It's part of a private venture by the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program. The experiments were reviewed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, and three finalists were sent to a national review board.

The winning research question was: "Does the stress response of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii growing in microgravity differ from the stress response of C. reinhardtii grown in normal gravity when it is stressed with 100mm of saline?"

Translation: Will fresh-water algae produce more or less oil when subjected to saltwater in space?

They said they have no idea how the algae will react but will probably see some sort of difference.

"Algae is the best source of bio-oil that we've been able to find, and oil is a very useful thing for everybody," Chapo said. "If microgravity affects it, we could be able to find better ways of producing oil."

Wells has worked on a project about algae oil production for the past two years, so the idea was an easy decision.

"We wanted to work with something we were comfortable with," he said.

The experiment itself is extremely tiny. Nanopacks, a private company, bought space on the shuttle to conduct the experiments in a 6-by-1-by-1-inch clear plastic block with small, drilled holes.

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Fluids will occupy the 250-microliter holes, which are about the size of a toothpick. Astronauts will mix the two fluids during flight, and the samples will be sent back to students for comparison

The three other proposals involve looking at micro-gravity's effect on oil and ethanol, Omega 3 fatty acids in river functions and plant germination.

The Zoo School is a science focus program that set out to meet needs of students that weren't being met in larger environments.

"We wanted to find ways to give practical experience to these kids," said their teacher, Mark James. "This experience is invaluable for them."

The students said they were excited about the opportunity -- even if it does mean a little bit of homework over the summer.

​Reach Jordan Pascale at 402-473-7120, or follow him @LJSPascale.


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