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Students help NASA researchers decide what plants to grow in space
by Amanda Griffin for KSC News
Kennedy Space Center FL (SPX) Apr 24, 2018

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NASA scientists with advanced degrees aren't the only ones deciding what crops should be grown in space. Students, including a special group from Columbus, Ohio, are also taking a bite out of this tasty cause.

For the past couple years, NASA has been partnering with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Miami, Florida, to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. NASA partners with The Fairchild Challenge, which reaches more than 125,000 students annually, to help determine which edible plants might be suitable for growth in microgravity aboard the International Space Station in the Veggie growth chamber.

The purpose of this ongoing series of experiments is to expand food options and increase plant diversity by testing multiple edible plants that meet NASA's criteria for size and edibility. Using equipment that mimics the environmental conditions aboard the International Space Station, students test factors that may influence plant growth, flavor and nutrition. NASA will use students' data to determine which plants to begin growing in space.

This year, the Homeless Families Foundation in Columbus added its students' talents to The Fairchild Challenge. The Homeless Families Foundation provides housing assistance and educational services for homeless families living in Columbus. They believe that stabilizing and empowering families, as well as providing quality education to at-risk and impoverished youth, is crucial in breaking the cycle of homelessness.

"You can't just put a roof over someone's head and expect them to come out of poverty," said Donna Bastian, director of donor relations for the foundation.

"You need to educate them."

After school and during the summer, the foundation serves 80 elementary and middle school children with hands-on STEM and problem-solving activities. Twenty-five percent of those served have been homeless at some point, and all are living in poverty.

"We work to give these kids a better opportunity and expose them to every opportunity so they can see a way out and a future for themselves," Bastian said.

To accomplish this, the foundation tailors many of its activities to the individual interests of the children. According to Bastian, many were curious about gardening and cooking. Tessa Hanna, an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer working with the foundation, reached out to Mark Miller, outreach education manager at the nearby Franklin Park Conservatory, who connected Hanna and the students with The Fairchild Challenge in an effort to encourage these budding interests.

Once they began, the students were responsible for daily plant upkeep and data collection. Throughout the 28-day challenge, they also recorded weekly plant measurements that were sent in to The Fairchild Challenge.

The growing chamber that housed the plants was kept in the lobby area of the education center, which gave students who weren't participating in the challenge an opportunity to engage with the project. Through careful observation, students were able to identify that some plants are potentially better suited for the conditions present on the orbiting laboratory, where water is a limited resource.

"There were real life applications in our research for NASA," said fourth-grader Chance.

"We learned how to take averages, grow plants, and convert Fahrenheit to Celsius. We also learned a lot about the effects of being in space and how nutritious food can keep people on Earth and in space healthy."

Students took ownership of the empirical aspects of the challenge, as well as the ones that allowed them to be more creative. The culmination of the plant growth phase of the project was the harvest day. After one final round of measurements, students weighed the edible biomass of each plant. They then used the species they had grown to make a delicious stir-fry they shared with all of the teachers at the center.

"All the students participating in the challenge have the 'right stuff,' and I really enjoyed seeing all the progress tweets," said NASA's Trent Smith, Veggie project manager at Kennedy Space Center.

"This year it was especially inspiring for me to see our team of students associated with the Homeless Families Foundation growing plants and collecting data for our NASA scientists."

Related Links
Veggie Project at ISS
Space Tourism, Space Transport and Space Exploration News

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NASA's New Space 'Botanist' Arrives at Launch Site
Pasadena CA (JPL) Apr 18, 2018
A new instrument that will provide a unique, space-based measurement of how plants respond to changes in water availability has arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin final preparations for launch to the International Space Station this summer aboard a cargo resupply mission. NASA's ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) left NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on April 6 by ground transport and arrived at Kennedy S ... read more

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