In summary

  • Swinburne has launched the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge.
  • The 10-week program supports high school students to send experiments to space.
  • A focus on gender equity has seen girls thrive in STEM.

A program developed by Swinburne is inspiring high school students to imagine a career in space.

Supported by the Australian Space Agency, the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge is a 10-week program for Year 10 and up high school students that sees the students competing to create the best experiment to launch into space. The winning project is sent to the International Space Station with the help of industry partner, Rhodium Scientific.

Before they start blasting projects into space, the students develop the necessary skills to create an experiment through a micro-unit inspired by Swinburne’s space technology co-major. Once the high school students have got the basics down, Swinburne student mentors guide the teams through the ideation and – when a winning project concept is chosen – use their advanced technical skills to create an experiment that meets flight guidelines.

Swinburne graphic to represent the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge, featuring an astronaut, satellite, plants in space and more.

Fuelling a career in space science

Sara Webb was once a student mentor for an earlier version of the program – now she’s a Swinburne staff member and PhD candidate completing research in transient astronomy (that’s looking at flaring stars for those of us without a background in astronomy) and helping to expand the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge to more schools.

“Our goal is to get students to take the lead in their designs and project management. I love the creativity of the students and fielding their many wonderful scientific questions. And of course, being able to send something that you’ve touched and helped build here on Earth into space is an amazing feeling,” she says.

In 2018 and 2019, Sara guided six talented senior students from Haileybury College on an experiment aptly named ‘Microcavity’, researching tooth decay in microgravity. The experiment remained on the International Space Station for 30 days and was completely automated by software written by the students.

For Sara, the program was an opportunity to put her technical skills into practice and build confidence in mentoring others.

Left: High school student Reah Shetty evenly coats the petri dish with the desired concentration of Streptococcus Mutans for preliminary testing. Right: A mixture of activation broth and Streptococcus Mutans Bactria being precisely measured out for preliminary testing. 

Supporting women and girls in science

When Sara was young, she felt a stigma towards women interested in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) field. She remembers how intimidating it was to be the ‘odd one out’ in science and engineering workshops.

“It was seeing female mentors and successful women at the top of their field that gave me the confidence to continue down a science research career,” she says.

The Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge is not just about teaching science to students, it’s also normalising women in science. The program is led by a number of talented Swinburne scientists, including astronomer Dr Rebecca Allen, Dean of Science Professor Virginia Kilborn, and space lawyer and current (in training) scientist-astronaut candidate for suborbital spaceflight Kim Ellis.

“From the beginning, we’ve striven to have this be a diverse, gender-balanced program. We’ve had a 50/50 split of girls and boys in the teams, but also in the Swinburne students and staff involved,” Dr Allen says.

They also partnered with a biotech space company that is 100 per cent owned and operated by women.

"As the founder and CEO of a space biotechnology company, I have a special bond with student scientists learning the technical skillsets of tomorrow. My company is enthusiastic to embark on this exciting program with Swinburne, impacting many student scientists by providing a hands-on experience to the emerging world of biotech research in space,” says founder and CEO of Rhodium Scientific, Olivia Holzhaus.

“Together, we strive to build a positive and progressive program that will ignite science-minded females to ask questions only answered in a microgravity environment.”

A future in space

When asked about the best part of studying STEM and taking part in the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge, Sara says, “The endless possibilities! Students get to think creatively and work together to produce concepts and ideas unique to this program.”

With more nations reaching space launch capacity and great reliance on satellite technology, there is a growing space industry.

“Space jobs aren’t just about pointing a telescope. There’s a lot more that will be needed – from regulating it to writing about it,” Dr Allen says.

“Whatever your interest, there’s a place for you in space.”

If your high school would like to be involved in the Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge, contact Dr Rebecca Allen.

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