The National Design Challenge is a research competition that facilitates authentic student research and experiment design with selected projects being sent to the ISS.
Teams of middle school and high school students design experiments with functional parts such as lights, cameras, clocks, sensors, and motors, all assembled within a ten-centimeter cube (half of a small shoebox). Students also learn programming and automate their experiments with microcontrollers, so ISS astronauts need not spend time attending to the experiments. The astronauts simply install the cube-shaped units, test the electrical and data connections, and activate the experiments.
The first NDC program was a pilot project in Texas in 2013 with collaborators including the ISS National Lab, Texas A&M University, NanoRacks, Infinity Aerospace, and SparkFun Electronics. The winning projects from that competition got to the ISS in July 2016 – much later than expected – because rocket failures forced the students to rebuild their experiments twice!
In the following years, the NDC program branched out to middle and high schools in Colorado, Illinois, and Indiana. Winners of the 2014 competition included students at Bell Middle School, who kept a blog of their progress. The winning projects from 2014 launched to the ISS in April and June 2017.
The winners of the 2015 NDC competitions in Illinois and Indiana included the first Boy Scout troop to send a payload to space. The Scouts’ experiment studying bacteria launched in August 2017.
Also in 2015, a new and similar competition was established through a collaboration between the ISS National Lab and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC). This competition, called the Space Station STEM Challenge, focuses on Massachusetts middle schools. One of the two winning teams documented their efforts in a blog. The two teams are collaborating on a single experiment to fly to the ISS. It will likely launch in 2018, but it has not been assigned to a specific mission yet.
The Boy Scout team whose project launched in August 2017 is featured in an episode of Xploration Outer Space. Project leader Norm McFarland said, “I think this is just an unbelievable opportunity for each and every Scout involved in this. They don’t realize this, but this is something that will be living on their resume for the next 20, 30, 40 years! This is an introduction to engineering at an early age and probably will affect the lives of several Scouts.”
The National Design Challenge program does not have any new competitions scheduled. For now, it is focusing on launching the remaining winning projects to the ISS.