Moon Masters
A student hooks up batteries for a chamber

Students studied electrical systems before building their plant growth chambers. Image Credit: Cathy O'Donnell

When students at Moore Elementary School in Houston undertook a NASA Engineering Design Challenge, they started from the ground up -- literally.

In August 2007, the space shuttle Endeavour visited the International Space Station to continue assembly of the orbital laboratory. The shuttle's primary payload for the STS-118 mission was a new segment of the station's large truss, which supports the power-generating solar arrays.

While that truss segment was vital to the growth of the station, a much smaller payload was of direct interest to the students at Moore Elementary, and many other schools around the nation. This payload also involved growth, but of a very different kind. Aboard Endeavour on the STS-118 flight were millions of cinnamon basil seeds.

The seeds were flown in connection with NASA's Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber. The project was inspired by NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon and develop an outpost there. NASA scientists anticipate that astronauts may be able to grow plants on the moon, and the plants could be used to supplement meals.

Growing plants in the hostile environment of the moon would require solving several problems. The engineering design challenge encourages students to identify those problems and find solutions. Students have to identify what plants need to grow, and what it would take to provide those items on the moon. Students were to design a plant growth chamber that would function on the lunar surface.

When Cathy O'Donnell, a third-grade teacher at Moore Elementary, decided to undertake the challenge with her students, she started with the basics. Her students learned about how plants grow on their home planet by getting their hands dirty outside. With the help of "Farmer Fred," the uncle of one of the students, the third-graders planted a garden outside their classroom. This helped them to learn more about how plants grow.

That start-from-the-basics approach carried over into all elements of the students' work. O'Donnell used the challenge as a launching platform introducing a variety of multidisciplinary topics. A NASA representative talked with the class three times through video conferencing. He talked about conditions on the moon so the students would have a better understanding of the requirements for growing plants there. He also talked about NASA's plans to return to the moon, and the Ares I and Ares V rockets that the agency is developing to make that possible.

After meeting with the NASA representative, the students began their own research. They started by learning more about the moon, and then began researching electricity. O'Donnell gave the students books about electricity and electrical circuits so they would better understand how to provide light for their plants.

Close-up of a growth chamber under construction

Teams of students in the class found different solutions to issues raised by the design challenge. Image Credit: Cathy O'Donnell

When the lighting for the chamber was ready, the students worked on an irrigation system. For example, one of the six teams in the class created a system where a bag of marbles was used to counterweight the water to get it to the plants. Others used a system with a hose that lifted to cause water to flow.

With help from parents, the students built the actual growth chamber, and then planted the seeds provided by NASA. The class was pleased to discover that the space-flown seeds grew just as well as NASA's samples that had not been in space.

O'Donnell's work with her students is an excellent example of how NASA missions and materials can be used in the classroom. Growing plants on the moon probably isn't a standard part of most teachers' curriculum. But O'Donnell demonstrated how the excitement of an out-of-this-world application can inspire students to learn about required subjects. With a project that spanned outdoor gardening to lunar science, O'Donnell proved that students can stay grounded in science while reaching for the stars.

Related Resources
NASA Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber
STS-118 Education Page
NASA Education Web Site   →
Students Take Over
Lunar Learning
Basil Plant Growth Image Gallery
Swinging for the Fence

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services