Students Take Over
Last school year, students across the nation used packets of space-flown seeds to help NASA figure out how to grow plants on the moon.

Two students looking at large images of seeds

Students at Hollin Meadows Math and Science Elementary School check out magnified images of space-flown seeds. Image Credit: Hollin Meadows Math and Science Elementary School

Students took many different approaches to NASA's Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber. Some focused on designing plant growth chambers, or miniature greenhouses, to grow their seeds. Others focused on designing systems to provide the right amount of water and light to their plants. Still others examined the seeds and plants for any effects from microgravity, radiation or other space hazards.

Students in Alexandria, Va., focused on studying seeds and plants. Jason Pittman, a science teacher at Hollin Meadows Math and Science Elementary School, said he turned the project over to his fifth- and sixth-graders to decide what they wanted to do. "I was really impressed with the ideas that they came up with," Pittman said.

The students designed eight different experiments to determine the differences between seeds flown in space and the control seeds, which were not flown in space. One of the experiments used a high-power microscope to look for microscopic differences in the two sets of seeds. Other experiments measured and compared the seeds' masses and germination rates.

A bar graph with the titles 'Leaf Count' and 'Space Seeds'

Students at Hollin Meadows Math and Science Elementary School hung posters around school showing some of the data they gathered in their experiments. This poster shows the daily total of leaves produced by plants grown from space-flown seeds. Image Credit: Hollin Meadows Math and Science Elementary School

Pittman was most impressed that one of the experiments studied second-generation seeds. Students grew plants from the first set of seeds, harvested a new set of seeds and then grew a second generation of plants.

"As a teacher I was pleasantly surprised at how thorough their investigation was," Pittman said. The students' ideas demonstrated to Pittman their knowledge of horticulture, specifically that students could look at a second generation of seeds.

Pittman's students have been studying plant life cycles and engaging in student-led horticulture investigations and experiment design for the last three years. Pittman said the engineering design challenge and the opportunity to grow space seeds took those lessons one step further and really sparked students' imaginations.

"This was a great way for me to connect our state curriculum with something that really does get to kids' imaginations," Pittman said. "The enthusiasm for science and for space and for NASA has all really, really just given kids a real charge about science in general. When they come into science lab, they're just really interested."

Students made charts showing their results and posted them all over the school. Lino, one of Pittman's students, wrote that working with seeds that had flown in space was exciting and made science interesting.

A student using a syringe and a tube to inject water into a plant growth chamber

Second-graders at Dr. H. Rodriguez Elementary School test the watering system for their lunar plant growth chambers. Image Credit: Dr. H. Rodriguez Elementary School

"Most of us thought that they (the space seeds) would never grow, but we were wrong," Lino said. "They grew better than the Earth plants. Looking at the seeds under the microscope made them look like they were from another dimension. I didn't think that they would look any different."

In Texas, students at a NASA Explorer School focused on plant growth chambers. Kindergarteners through fifth-graders at Dr. H. Rodriguez Elementary School in Harlingen, Texas, made dozens of uniquely designed plant growth chambers. Some grades worked on the project as a class, making two growth chambers -- one for space-flown seeds and one for the control seeds -- while in some of the upper grades each student made a growth chamber.

Rodriguez teacher Beulah Rangel said the project was exciting because it was science that was hands-on and real.

"We want to make science meaningful, to expose them to real-life science, for them to get excited," Rangel said. "This was not just a worksheet. It was hands-on. It was meaningful, and the project exposed students to careers in STEM-G (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and geography)."

Once they had completed their plant growth chambers, students enjoyed observing their plants grow and learning how elements of their designs affected the plants' growth.

A top-down view into a plant growth chamber

Fourth-graders from Dr. H. Rodriguez Elementary School peek into their plant growth chambers to observe the growth from seeds that flew in space. Image Credit: Dr. H. Rodriguez Elementary School

"We had plants that grew up to two feet. In some cases, the space seeds grew more than the control seeds. We also had plants that died. Some of them didn't have enough water. Others got moldy because they didn't have enough air. Other plants didn't have enough light," Rangel said. "Overall, the challenge was a great learning experience for all our students."

The Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber calls on elementary, middle and high school students to design, build and evaluate lunar plant growth chambers. More than 1.1 million students are already participating in the challenge, which has been extended for the 2008-09 school year.

Educators who want to participate in the challenge with their students can request cinnamon basil seeds that have flown in space on the STS-118 space shuttle mission. Students can compare plants grown from both space-flown and Earth-based control seeds, and test the designs of the lunar plant growth chambers. The project supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Related Resources
Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber
STS-118 Education Resources
Lunar Learning
NASA Explorer Schools   →
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services