Thanks to the work of Eli Pinney Elementary School students, Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital rocket will have some special guests aboard when it launches this fall in West Texas -- jellyfish.

During a 12-week space-academy program, 82 students in grades 3-5 at Eli Pinney learned about space and ultimately designed a project to look at how microgravity in space affects the behavior and movement of jellyfish, said project leader Dr. Peter Lee, assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Cardiac Surgery at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center. Jellyfish were ideal for the experiment, Lee said, because they are not as complex of an organism as humans.

Students celebrated the end of the program with a graduation ceremony May 22 at Dublin Jerome High School.

Lee's passion for space, which he said he has had since he was young, was the impetus for the Pinney program.

Lee was working with NASA on a $200,000 grant-funded project exploring the effects of microgravity on tissue-engineered skeletal muscle -- muscle grown from cells in a lab -- to be tested onboard the Blue Origins rocket.

That program included a commitment to give back to the community through outreach, and Lee said he realized undergraduates and graduates at OSU could educate K-12 students about space.

His daughter, Elisa, was interested in space, and Lee said he thought it would be a good opportunity for her and her classmates. Elisa is a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Pinney.

With partnerships and support from Stark Industries, Jellyfish Art, COSI, NanoRacks, Blue Origins, DreamUp, the OSU Department of Surgery and a $2,500 grant from the Ohio Space Grant Consortium, Pinney's space academy was born.

During the program, which began in February, students designed their experiment while practicing teamwork and communication, Lee said.

When the rocket launches, a few dozen of the Cephea cephea species of jellyfish will be on board, Lee said.

That species was chosen because of its small size -- a few millimeters -- and its sensitivity to light.

The jellyfish will experience microgravity for three to four minutes, Lee said.

The goal is to see how jellyfish float and respond in a microgravity environment and how they respond to light stimulus. When astronauts get motion sick, it's because what they see and what their brain senses are different, Lee said.

While the interaction between the visual and vestibular systems -- the latter is where humans get sensory information about motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation -- in humans is complex, in jellyfish, the nervous system is simpler, he said.

Neel Modak, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, said he enjoyed learning about space and jellyfish during the academy.

He said he was surprised to learn jellyfish predated dinosaurs on earth.

Fossils date jellyfish to the Cambrian Period, about 500 million years ago. Dinosaurs, by comparison, lived on earth between about 247 and 66 million years ago, in the Mesozoic Era.

For Perry Blough, a volunteer science instructor at Pinney, the space academy was a learning experience for teachers and students.

Students were able to use the scientific method and learn from their mistakes, he said.

Pinney Principal Troy Ehrsam said Lee approached him in the fall to discuss launching a partnership.

"It was exciting to see students so excited about a topic that we may not be able to explore as much," in the classroom, Ehrsam said.

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