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Cape Town Schools Participate in Educational Projects with the International Space Station

For the first time in South Africa, and on the African continent, two Cape Town High Schools are set to participate in a global, Space-connected science project when NASA’s SpaceX launches Dragon CRS-14 aboard Falcon 9 from the USA on the 2nd of April 2018. The destination is the International Space Station (ISS), and on board is the project, called ExoLab which will engage with learners and teachers at Claremont High School and the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

“I am thrilled with this project that will take us way beyond the classroom, literally into Space,” said Murray Gibbon, Principal of Claremont High School. “It is the kind of project that takes learning to a higher level with exciting and inspiring engagement with real Science in the real world.”

ExoLab is an experimental platform that connects scientists working at the ISS in real-time with classrooms around the world in a collaborative investigation of the microgravity on living things. The ExoLab project is made available in the country by I-Innovate as part of its mission to facilitate cutting-edge STEM programmes, and to bring 21st century learning experiences into South African classrooms. The participation of Claremont High School and the Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology in this particular ExoLab project is made possible by a sponsorship from Tata Consultancy Services. These schools, serving many learners from disadvantaged Cape communities, will join others in more than 90 classrooms around the world that will be connected to the ExoLab in the ISS after the April launch.

“I-Innovate believes in inspiring potential in young learners and preparing them for future challenges and adventures in the real world,” says I-Innovate CEO, Trisha Crookes. “The cutting-edge ExoLab programme gives South African teachers and students first-hand, real-time access to global scientists, engineers and astronauts. It connects students’ learning in the classroom directly to current endeavours in Space; igniting the possibilities for their future and making learning personally meaningful and exciting to them through these unique, hands-on experiences. ExoLab is the kind of extraordinary educational experience that can inspire a passion for learning in a young person that will last them a lifetime.”

At the centre of the plant biology investigation that spans from Earth to space is Arabidopsis thaliana, commonly known as thale cress. This is a small flowering plant native to Africa and Eurasia that is often the organism of choice for a variety of plant science studies. Its genome has been fully mapped.

Greg van Schalkwyk, Principal at The Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology noted that: “This project with ExoLab makes the curriculum more relevant for our kids. They are living in a world of Apps, Virtual Intelligence and Robotics. This is an opportunity for our educators to collaborate with ExoLab and stimulate our kids through real-life exposure that can prepare them for future jobs.”

To facilitate their participation in the project, Claremont High and Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology schools will each receive fully-equipped Earth-based growth chambers and the resources they need to replicate the experiment taking place on ISS. Over six to eight weeks, they will use their specialised classroom growth chamber to grow Arabidopsis thaliana, and track its development in comparison to the same species of plant grown aboard the ISS ExoLab through a camera-linked, live-stream, online learning platform. A detailed curriculum providing hands-on classroom activities guides teachers and learners through this stimulating learning process.

Learners, who will be ground-breaking African participants in the initiative, reacted with enthusiasm at the announcement of their inclusion in this extraordinary project:

Jade Segers, a Grade 9 learner at The Cape Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology said: “I am very excited about the ExoLab project because it is so interesting. It’s really cool that we can connect with people in Space!”

Viwe Mbava, A Grade 12 learner at Claremont High School said: “I am very excited to be part of ExoLab because it is very different and ground-breaking. I want to understand the Universe better by seeing how this plant adapts.”

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