Lancaster K class helping in national experiment

Lancaster Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jeanne Paff and her students inspect photos of caterpillars aboard the International Space Station. The students are comparing the development of their caterpillars on earth with those in space.
Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Dec. 7, 2009.

The kindergartners at Lancaster Elementary School can't pinpoint the orbit of the International Space Station - "Far," Dale Johnson says. "A hundred feet up in the air." - but they can tell you the particulars of one of the experiments aboard the station.

That's because they've become part of the experiment.
That experiment, despite its official designation as the CSI-03 (Commercial Generic Bio-processing Apparatus Science Insert - 03) investigation, has a kid-friendly goal - finding out if the lack of gravity in space will affect how a caterpillar turns into a monarch butterfly.

Lancaster is one of several hundred schools across the nation overseeing control caterpillars. Students are watching their caterpillars develop and comparing their progress with the caterpillars in space.

"We get to do real science," says teacher Jeanne Paff.

Each participating school received three monarch caterpillars and caterpillar food encased in a clear container. A similar container, with the same food and caterpillars the same age, was delivered to the International Space Station by the space shuttle Atlantis.

The Lancaster kids were in from the beginning, even getting to watch the shuttle launch on Nov. 16 because of a fortunate (for them) one-day delay in that launch.

"We got to see the things on the side of the rocket go off, and the astronauts were talking," says kindergartner Dakota Cocklin.

The "butterflynauts" arrived at the space station on Nov. 18. The Lancaster students, meanwhile, installed their caterpillar package in the school science lab. The progress of the space caterpillars was tracked online (www.monarch watch.org/space/), complete with photos and videos of the caterpillars' development.

The kindergartners came up with a set of six questions about the development of the space caterpillars: Would they be able to crawl to find food; could they make a chrysalis, hang in a J shape and shed their skin; would they be able to come out of the chrysalis, spread their wings and fly?

Their earthbound caterpillars did all those things. With the space caterpillars, though, it was another story.

"This is the space caterpillar," said Zachariah Setser, pointing to a drawing he had made. "In space, it's hanging in a C. Ours is in a J."

"The ones in space can't stay at the top," said Keagan Spencer. "They're like C's."

"Because there's no gravity," added Phoebe Mayhew.

"They don't shed their skin all the way," Dakota Cocklin said of the space caterpillars.

Midway through the experiment, the scientists (student and adult) had yet to determine whether or not the caterpillars would emerge from the chrysalises, and if the butterflies would be able to fly.

Paff's students had watched monarch butterflies hatch in the fall as part of their regular classroom agenda, so they were familiar with what was going to happen on Earth.

They had some questions, though, about what would happen to the space butterflies.

"I don't think there will be enough room for them to fly," said Alyssa Fulton.

The kindergartners theorized that the butterflies might not be able to flap their wings in space to dry them, and that they might not be able to live on Earth after being born in space.

The space butterflies began emerging on Thursday, Dec. 3, with video posted online - answering the students' final questions.

Photos, videos and a written log of the butterflies in space can be viewed at www.monarch watch.org/space/.