Protected by plastic goggles and rubber gloves, some 75 students from Golda Och Academy poured doses of sodium silicate into glass cylinders; mixed in salt, water, and colored granules; and then transferred the brew into containers the size of peanut butter jars.
It was a lesson that had as much to do with Israeli history as it did with chemistry.
The fifth and sixth graders paid tribute to fallen Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon by replicating an experiment he conducted aboard the space shuttle Columbia before its fatal breakup on Feb. 1, 2003, nine years earlier to the day.
Ramon was killed along with six other crew members.
“Our kids are recreating an experiment the astronaut did when he was in space,” explained Jessica Vaughan, a sixth-grade science teacher at the Conservative day school in West Orange.
“They are creating a chemical reaction that will end up growing really fun-colored crystals. It looks cool and actually has some actual science behind it.”
The experiment, called “Chemical Garden,” had been suggested to Ramon by Israeli schoolchildren.
Before the students began their experiment, Gil Lanier, the consul for public affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, urged them to be inspired by Ramon’s work.
“Maybe one of you in the future will be the next great scientist to do a space experiment,” he said.
As his mixture began taking shape, Yonatan Arieh of West Orange said, “I have no idea what the chemical garden is going to be.”
“I think it’s cool, and I think maybe my becoming an astronaut would be cool,” said his lab partner and fellow sixth grader, Yocheved Perry of Caldwell.
“It is creating a rocky formation,” explained sixth grader Shai Bloom of Millburn.
Donna Oshri, GOA’s director of marketing and communications, said that the iCenter, a program based in Northbrook, Ill., that aims to incorporate aspects of Israel into all subjects taught at Jewish day schools, “is using Golda Och Academy as a resource tool and model for other schools.”
Ramon, whose mother was an Auschwitz survivor and father a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence, was born in 1954.
He was an Israeli fighter pilot who was chosen in 1997 for the American space program. The Columbia flight was his first trip into space.
In a short PowerPoint presentation following the experiment, the students learned that Ramon brought several Israeli artifacts aboard the Columbia. Fragments of his diary and an Israeli Air Force flag were among the rubble discovered in Texas after the shuttle came apart just 16 minutes before its scheduled landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
His participation in the shuttle flight “was a recognition of Israel as a space power,” said Lanier. “We are one of few countries who send satellites into orbit. Ramon was a man of space who understood where he was going but recognized where he was coming from. That is very important.”