Three students in Olentangy Academy’s STEM program are aiding NASA in research to expand food options and increase plant diversity for future determination on what plants can be grown in space.
Olentangy Liberty sophomores Issac Rose and Madison Heffernan, with the help of Berlin sophomore Alex Forman, have been participating in the Fairchild Challenge, in conjunction with the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, to grow lettuce plants while following NASA protocols and reporting their data to NASA scientists.
That data is being collected at the International Space Station (ISS) as scientists continue to study the future colonization of Mars, which will require sustainable food sources both for the long trips and for life on the planet.
NASA began its partnership with the Fairchild Challenge, an award-winning environmental science competition based in Miami, Florida, during the 2015-16 school year to allow for middle and high school students to conduct experiments on which plants are suitable for growth in space conditions.
For the Olentangy Academy students, the project is part of the school’s “Genius Hour” where they are free to work on whatever projects they please. Students were sent all the materials they would need to grow the lettuce, including the grow unit and soil, which was pre-mixed to include all the necessary nutrients, as well as the fertilizer and, of course, the seeds.
Over the past month, the trio has cultivated eight lettuce plants of four different varieties, documenting every step up until the plants were ready to harvest, which they did on Thursday.
As part of the project, the students have been able to Skype with NASA scientists monthly as they go through their research to ask all the necessary questions needed to maximize the data to be returned. Jamie Doup, a STEM science teacher at Olentangy Academy, said the scientists are looking for data on how the plants grow in all conditions, including varying temperatures and humidities.
“I think right now, (NASA) is just trying to test as much as they can to see what affect different conditions have, because they don’t really know what they’re going to encounter,” Doup said.
Among the weekly data the students send to the scientists is the plants’ height, width, and depth, as well as how much water was given and the overall look of the plants.
Rose said they haven’t had any real issues with the plants other than one seed that didn’t germinate. However, in a funny twist, Heffernan added that seed has now become the biggest of the eight plants.
Doup called the current project “the most successful growth we’ve ever had,” adding there have been issues with past projects such as the growth light going out. However, during that project, Doup said she was instructed by the scientists to move forward with the project without the lamp because should a light go out on the ISS, they won’t have an immediate fix.
That instruction from NASA highlights the importance of every type of data point that comes from the project as scientists take into account any and all scenarios.
Heffernan said she has always been fascinated with space, and after not jumping at the opportunity to get involved with the project last year, knew she didn’t want to miss out on this year as well. In talking with Rose, he concurred that it would be a great experience.
She said the opportunity has been “really, really cool,” adding that rather than ask her about her school day, Heffernan’s parents usually ask how the “space lettuce” is coming along.
“It’s so cool that we actually get to be a part of the future,” Heffernan said. “Not only our futures but possibly the future of humankind. Eventually, this is going to be something that is going to be revolutionary in our space exploration.”
Of course, while their work has been serious, there has to be some fun sprinkled in as well, and Heffernan said the most fun she has had with the project was naming each individual plant.
There are two Alkindus plants, which she said they named “Sharon” and “Ozzy” after the famous Osbourne family. The two Buttercrunch plants are named “Peanut” and “Jelly” because “Buttercrunch” reminded them of peanut butter, naturally. “Roman” and “Reggie” are the names of the two Red Romaine plants, and “Sushi” and “Dino” were given to the two Flashy Trout’s Back lettuce plants.
Forman said he has most enjoyed the overall progression of the project, from the excitement of the materials arriving, to seeing how big the plants had grown on Tuesday just before they were to be harvested.
As the leader of the project, Doup said she enjoys teaching the kids how to produce for themselves.
“I think it’s fun teaching kids how to grown their own food,” she said. “I think we kind of take that for granted anymore since other people do it for us and we just go to the grocery store.”
Doup went on to say that during one of their Skype sessions with NASA scientists, the costs of sending even the smallest of supplies to the ISS were discussed.
“It was, like, $200,000 to send one kilogram of anything, and we currently send all of the food up there,” Doup said. “We could be harvesting seeds from food that’s growing (up there) and replanting them.”
The students haven’t yet chosen what their next project will be this year, but Heffernan mentioned the algae that have grown on the water mat underneath the plants and how that may affect their growth as a possibility, as well as further examining the effects of temperature and humidity on their growth.
With the cycle now complete and the lettuce ready to be harvested, the lettuce will now serve its intended purpose of being eaten, the students said, with Rose adding, “It’ll be the most expensive salad ever.”
While the students have the opportunity to continue with the Fairchild Challenge through their junior and senior years, they said they are unsure if they will do so.
Asked what he would say to whoever may be interested in getting involved with the Fairchild Challenge in the years to come, Rose said, “Space is the next frontier, and space is the glass ceiling that we still need to break … If we keep putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and breaking down our ozone layer, then we really have no future on Earth. So, we need to figure out how we can grow plants in space — on the moon or on Mars when we eventually go there.”
He added, “Experiments like this really further our understanding of how humidity, heat, and light affect plants so that when we do eventually go to Mars, when we do eventually go back to the moon, we can say, ‘Ok, this is what we found in these different types of conditions on Earth, so maybe we can replicate those in zero-gravity spaces.”