Interview with DreamUp Director Patricia Mayes

While producing my article about Chicks In Space, three sisters sending their DIY plant growth experiment to the International Space Station, I spoke with the Director of DreamUp Patricia Mayes. A career teacher, she joined NanoRacks to help its growing educational business in space. 

Can you explain what DreamUp is all about?

DreamUp helps finance International Space Station projects for student groups. The price to send research into space is generally outside any one campus’ budget, so most of them need some kind of funding mechanism. DreamUp is a way for student groups to pool their funds in one spot until they reach their goal.

Many people would be surprised to hear that students do research in space, how unusual is it?

In our 5 years we’ve had about 150 school projects. It’s seldom an issue that a school doesn’t have the talent to put a space project together. Funding is the biggest challenge. Some teachers say “Oh I could never find those funds to do that” but teachers who have raised money before know what is possible. It’s a matter of being creative looking for a grant program or a sponsor that will pick up your campus.

From what I understand, a car dealership paid for Valley Christian High School’s first flight, for example. The school really liked the experience so they invited neighborhood schools to participate in their next flight and share the costs. The schools have flown over 40 missions and have about 15 more coming up this year.

What kind of fundraising options does DreamUp provide?

We have a relationship with American Express where people can turn their unused Membership Rewards points into a cash donation to DreamUp. We are a non-profit organization so the donation is tax deductible. The donation goest towards the project’s launch costs.

Have you looked at crowdfunding?

We have looked at a bunch of crowdfunding sites for about a year. The beauty of experiment.com is it’s a donation without expectation. [Student teams like the Bulawa sisters] have full schedules with school. If they don’t have to respond with prizes, it frees the team to focus on the project.

What was working with Chicks In Space like?

For us it was perfect. Our tag line is “Space for Everybody”. These three sisters built this contraption in their family’s spare bedroom - that’s their science lab. It’s been all their work with minimal help from anybody except their mom pushing them six  years ago to do this kind of thing. So now it’s not a big deal for them - they’re not intimidated at all.

What kind of obstacles must student teams overcome to send an experiment into space?

Once they decide what they want to do there’s the question of how am I going to do that. They face a lot of design constraints. For example, they design around launch delays and maybe loss of power. They have to design the box to wait for some signal that could be three weeks out. You really have to plan and test the sequence of how things could go.

The school schedule itself makes it kind of hard because there’s lots of breaks. They are always starting and stopping their development process. We’ve had flights going up maybe twice a quarter so if they aren’t ready they’ll ask for more time and a later flight and that’s fine with us.

What do the students get out of the experience?

This is a program in which students get to know what a piece of finished space hardware looks like. What it feels like. How robust it needs to be to survive the bumpy launch. The excitement level is very high.