Contest Seeks To Launch Student Space Projects

The YouTube Space Lab competition is asking high school students to submit video proposals for space-based science experiments. Zahaan Bharmal, a Google executive who envisioned the competition, says that the winning entry will be performed on the International Space Station and streamed live on YouTube to the world.

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IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Listen up, high school students. Boy, have we got an offer for you. If you even had - ever had an idea of some kind of experiment that cries out, cries out to be done in zero gravity of space, well, now is your chance, because a worldwide competition is looking for space science projects, and the winning entries will be launched into orbit to the International Space Station. Zahaan Bharmal is Google's head of marketing operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa, and the creator of the YouTube space lab competition. He's based in London. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ZAHAAN BHARMAL: Welcome. Thank you.

FLATOW: So what...

BHARMAL: Good to be here.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you're looking for kids and their experiments.

BHARMAL: That's right. That's right. Kicking off this week, we want kids around the world, ages between 14 to 18, to record a short, two-minute video describing their idea for an experiment that could be carried out in space. We want them to submit it on YouTube, and then we've got this incredible panel of judges, including one of my childhood heroes, Stephen Hawking. They're going to pick the best ones, and the two best are going to get sent into space.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. And what do the students get - just get sent in space? Are there other prizes and awards for them?

BHARMAL: Well, we think, you know, just getting their experiments in space is pretty cool. I know that if I was a teenager today, that would be incentive enough. But in addition, the six regional winners - there are going to be two winners from the Americas, two from Europe, Middle East, Africa and two from Asia-Pacific. They're going to get a zero-gravity flight. So they get to experience weightlessness in one of those parabolic jumbo jets.

FLATOW: Now we're talking. Now we're talking.

BHARMAL: Yeah, which is going to be awesome. But then on top of that, the two global winners, the two individuals or teams that get their experiments on the space station, they're going to get a choice between either going to Japan to see the rocket carrying their experiment blast off into space, or, as an alternative, when they turn 18, they can actually go to Star City in Russia, which is where Gagarin and the cosmonauts today train. And they're going to get a once-in-a-lifetime, unique astronaut training experience.

FLATOW: Wow. That's pretty good. And tell us how you can enter again. What do you have to do to enter this?

BHARMAL: So you can enter either on your own, or in groups of up to three. You record a short video, and you explain your idea. And the way you can explain this is it could be a simple as just standing in front of a blackboard describing your idea, or you could actually build a prototype or a mockup of some kind. In terms of the type of science we're looking for, it's either physics or biology. We've got some amazing partners on board, because we at YouTube, we're not the space experts, but NASA and the European Space Agency and the Japanese Space Agency, they're the real space experts.

We spent a lot of time working with them over the last few months to develop a set of guidelines that are going to be, hopefully, as easy as possible to follow for the kids, that are going to encourage the broadest range of thinking and creativity and imagination whilst also being cognizant of the realities of actual space travel.

FLATOW: Zahaan, you must have some abiding love of space yourself, to think of this sort of idea.

BHARMAL: Yes, I do. I mean, I'm a complete space geek. I am - I've loved space for decades. When I was a teenager, space was what first inspired me to study hard and study science at school and actually led me to read physics at university, and I specialized in cosmology. And so this passion and this acute awareness of the ability of space to inspire has been with me for a very long time. But it only really became a reality when I first joined Google a few years ago.

And I'm not sure whether you're aware, but every now and then, Google runs these internal competitions where anyone can pitch an idea for something new. And I literally had been with the company for two months, but being the space geek I am, I pitched this idea for something called space lab. And I said, hey, senior execs at Google and YouTube, what do you think about this? We're going to have this global competition, kids design their experiments, and they submit it on YouTube. We're going to send it into space.

And, you know, I guess, most people would think that's science fiction, but luckily for me, the folks here liked the idea. And, you know, this week, it launched, and it's a reality.

FLATOW: Wow. So the deadline for entries is December 7th, right?

BHARMAL: Correct.

FLATOW: And when would the project go into space?

BHARMAL: So the actual experiment will be sent into space some time in the summer next year, summer 2012. But before then, we're actually going to have - we're going to have an event in Washington, D.C., around mid-March, and that's going to be the event where we're going to invite the six regional winners I mentioned. And that's when we're going to be announcing the two global winners. And the two global winners, there will be one from the higher age category, which is 17 to 18, and one from the lower age category, which is 14 to 16.

FLATOW: Wow. And a lot of - how many entries are you expecting?

BHARMAL: You know...

FLATOW: How stiff is the competition going to be on it?

BHARMAL: I'm sorry. Say that again.

FLATOW: How stiff is the competition going to be? I imagine a lot of people will enter.

BHARMAL: Well, I mean, I very much hope that, you know, a lot of people are going to be excited to enter. In terms of numbers, you know, it's very difficult to predict because I don't think anything quite like this has been done before, with just the range of different partners, the combination of YouTube with these amazing space agencies and the wonder of space, you know. But my personal hope, as the science geek, is that, you know, thousands of kids are going to want to enter and be part of this. And hopefully many, many more are going to be inspired by space, by science and hopefully, you know, the end goal is more kids more likely to put their hands up in the classroom to being inspired.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's...

BHARMAL: And...

FLATOW: ...the research is showing that kids are learning science and interested in science outside of the classrooms. Their educations happens - and for most people, that's where they're learning their science.

BHARMAL: I mean, I think inspiration can come from anywhere. Inspiration comes from anywhere. I mean, I had a wonderful physics teacher when I was a teenager, and he was certainly one of the reasons I got interested. But at the same time, I was influenced by science fiction. I was influenced by my own reading. I was influenced by the copy of "A Brief History of Time" that my dad bought me for my 16th birthday. And I think, you know, what kids have today that perhaps I didn't have when I was growing up is the power of video, and we've seen so many examples where, you know, video had this awesome potential to help people learn, and we've seen this with initiatives like YouTube EDU. We've seen with the Khan(ph) Academy.

And so we really see YouTube Space Lab as part of a broader initiative here about using video to help people learn. It's part of our broader initiative that YouTube (unintelligible) schools, you know, making it easier for teachers to open up a laptop in the classroom and help their kids learn through the power of the amazing videos that are already out there.

FLATOW: Well, Zahaan, I want to wish you luck, and we'll keep track of - we very much believe in our videos because that's what our next segment is about, the videos we make every week here on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

BHARMAL: It was absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.

FLATOW: Zahaan Bharmal is Google's head of marketing operations in Europe, Middle East and Africa, and creator of the YouTube Space Lab Competition.

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