Watching paint dry is anything but a mundane task for a group of Minnehaha Academy high school students who are going above and beyond to take the expression literally.

The select group has the rare opportunity to test a science experiment in outer space this year -- one of only eight school groups nationwide and the only one in the Midwest. They've chosen a simple test for their complex project: watching paint polymers dry in space.

"At any age, it would be great to send something to space, but as a teenager, it's really great," senior Nick Cochrane said.

Their prototype is due to scientists Jan. 12 for testing before it blasts off in March in a rocket with astronauts bound for the International Space Station. Until then, the students are working before and after school and during their vacations to design the project that will test how the absence of gravity affects paint polymers drying at different temperatures.

The 16 sophomores, juniors and seniors heard about the unusual opportunity from Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, who came to Minnesota in 2009 from Valley Christian Schools in California. The schools there started the International Space Station project three years ago, and, now Minnehaha, five other California schools and a group of Girl Scouts in Hawaii are crafting projects to send to space -- from battery testing to plant growth.

Senior Ashley Lundeen has always been intrigued by engineering, but when she heard about the chance to send an experiment to space, "I was just freaking out," she said.

After teaching themselves basic computer programming and electric circuitry during their summer vacation, the teens have spent hours before and after school, late into Friday nights and on their vacations working on the project.

Together, they've designed a circuit board the size of a candy bar equipped with a tiny camera, motor, temperature gauge and heater. It all has to fit into a "nano lab" -- a container that's only 2 inches by 4 inches long -- super compact for its trip hundreds of miles into space.

Temperature control

From their south Minneapolis classroom, the students will control their experiment in space, adjusting the temperature to see how it affects the polymers.

Completing the project won't earn the eight girls and eight boys any school credit because it's being done outside their classes. In fact, the students had to help fund-raise to pay the $30,000 cost to participate.

But they say it's what they get in return -- exposure to college-level engineering and software programming -- that makes it all worthwhile.

"It's more about what happens here; it's basically an introduction to engineering," Lundeen said in the cluttered science classroom, adding that the opportunity to work with professional engineers has solidified her interest in pursuing a science career.

Real-world experience

It's been a steep learning curve to dive into the advanced engineering project for the students and their two teachers at the school, which doesn't have an engineering course.

So they've consulted with paint experts and six professional engineers like Tom Holman. The former computer engineer said students like his daughter, Viola, are gaining real-world experience and 21st century learning skills needed for college and the business sector.

"You really don't get that sitting in high school, no matter what high school you go to," he said.

In March, their experiment will join the seven other projects, shooting into space for a two-month stay at the International Space Station.

And already, the school is making plans to participate in the project again next year.

"As the project has gone on, it's really captured their imagination," teacher Nancy Cripe said. "They're very passionate about it. Everything has to be invented as you go."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib