Students study space, sprouts

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Carmen Boykin doesn’t like tomatoes.

But if the 10th-grader were an astronaut headed to Mars and the spaceship cupboard happened to be bare, she would be grateful for a tomato.

Carmen and 53 other freshmen and sophomores in Rachel McNeill’s science class at Hunt High School are in the midst of an experiment that could determine which seeds will grow the best tomatoes in space and on other planets, such as Mars.

“I have learned that some germinated seeds grow faster than others,” said Carmen, who was still waiting on three of her four seeds to come out of the ground. “I’m a little worried about them. They are taking a long time to get up.”

The exercise is part of the Citizen Science Project run by the Canadian Space Agency.

“What they do is they take tomato seeds, and they send them up to the shuttle they have orbiting the Earth,” McNeill said. “The seeds stay in space for a few months and then they bring them back down to Earth.”

The seeds are then packaged up and sent to teachers who want to participate in the Tomatosphere Program led by the First the Seed Foundation.

Students are given seeds that have been marked with by letter codes. The experiment is “blind” because the students do not know which seeds have actually gone into space.

“One set of them will have been in space, and the other set will have been on Earth the whole time,” McNeill said.

The goal of the project is to see if being in space affects the germination of the seed.

Such experiments are important as humans are planning to embark upon a first-ever mission to Mars in the 2030s. The trip could take two to three years round trip depending on length of stay. Such a long trip will require astronauts to grow their own food.

“So what they have the students doing is collecting the data to see how long it takes for the space seeds and the non-space seeds to germinate, to see if there is a change in that, with the ultimate goal being that if we are in space for a long time or if we are populating another planet, will our seeds grow as they are supposed to,” McNeill said. “We walk them through how to plan the seed. We show them how to measure it once it has been germinated and how to keep the data on a spreadsheet.”

Students will continue daily measurements for 10 or 15 days.

“Once we’ve got enough data, then we’ll talk about how to organize that into a graph,” McNeill said. “We’ll talk about making averages and things like that, so we will incorporate some of the math skills that you need in science into the project as well.”

It is hoped that the experiment will help ensure that the seeds taken on a long journey to Mars are actually going to be capable of growing and producing what will be a much-needed source of food. Future studies will be undertaken to make sure that the nutritional content of the tomatoes hasn’t changed by time in space.

A seeds planted by Felix Candelario had grown up to a height of 2 centimeters.

“I come check it out a few times because I’m a little bit impatient,” Felix said. “I want to see if it grow.”

“The plants help us. They create oxygen and stuff. I think it’s good to know how they grow,” Felix said. “Most all of the food that we eat comes from plants. It’s really good to know the process and how to measure them. It’s fun, too.”

“It gives them an opportunity to think through the scientific method and that process and getting them to actually do some comparing and collect data,” said AP biology teacher Will Edwards, who has several seniors in his class participating. “It’s important to have that connection with real-world application and with NASA and what they are doing and the implications that they could possibly have in an ever changing environment and finding new solutions to make sure that our plants can grow not just hear on Earth, but potentially one day on Mars or another planet or in space.”

McNeill said her students participated in the same experiment during the last school year but Hurricane Matthew prevented the conclusion.

“We planted them on a Friday and then the following week Matthew hit, so we were out of school and we couldn’t use those results at all because the seeds germinated while we were out of school and they all died,” McNeill said.

Data from the project will be uploaded to the Tomatosphere’s First the Seed website. The class will receive an email back to let students know which of the seed groups was the one that went into space.

To learn more about the project, go to https://www.firsttheseedfoundation.org/tomatosphere/.

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