“Best wishes to the student flight experiment team and congratulations to future doctors Ives, Perrie and Stamler, and welcome to the space program.”
When Maria Nickel, a science teacher at École Stonewall Centennial School in Stonewall, Manitoba, read that email from the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) an entire auditorium of students jumped to their feet in excitement.
But nobody was more thrilled than Grade 8 students Graeme Perrie, Adam Stamler and Carter Ives. The boys hugged each other and brushed away tears of joys. “When I announced their names at the assembly it was like watching someone win at the Olympics,” recalls Nickel. “It was the gold medal moment after countless hours of hard work and effort.”
That work began in the fall after students at the school decided to write and submit proposals to the SSEP to take part in Mission 11 to the International Space Station (ISS). The SSEP is an education initiative that gives students the opportunity to design and propose real experiments to fly in orbit, first aboard the Space Shuttle, then on the ISS. “Graeme, Adam and Carter asked if they could do something with the Tomatosphere™ program,” recalls Nickel. “Two of the three boys had worked with the program the year before and were really inspired by it.”
The students came up with an experiment to determine if Tomatosphere™ tomato seeds will germinate after a second exposure to microgravity and cosmic radiation. The free, hands-on Tomatosphere™ program, operated in Canada by Let’s Talk Science, provides Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms with two sets of tomato seeds – one that has been exposed to space (or space-like conditions) and an untreated set. By planting and examining the two sets of tomato seeds, students investigate the effects of outer space on seed germination.
“Tomatosphere™ is amazing. It teaches us about space exploration and agriculture,” says Stamler, age 13. “It’s more engaging than anything we could read in a book.”
Nickel agrees, which is why she’s been using the program with her students for 16 years – as long as she’s been teaching. “Tomatosphere™ is easy to use and accessible to students of all levels and abilities,” she says. “It allows every child to try something new and be proud. I love to see the excitement on their faces when their plants start to grow. Many students come back to visit me after they move on to high school and they’re still talking about the program.”
In fact, Ives, 13, was so excited by the program last year he planted the seedlings in his own garden at home and recorded their growth over the summer. “I learned so much from the program,” he says. “Once I grew tomatoes in my backyard, it really sparked my imagination and I started thinking about all the opportunities for growing food in space. I definitely want a career in agriculture one day.”
Sparking a child’s interest in science is a big part of what Nickel values about Tomatosphere™. “The program increases learning by making students more curious about space. They want answers to their questions so they’re inspired to do research on their own,” she says.
And learning is exactly what Nickel’s students do – about science, space and agriculture – and so much more. “Putting the proposal together taught us about teamwork and working collaboratively,” says 13-year-old Perrie. “And now, after eight weeks of working together really hard, all of our efforts are going up to the ISS. The whole experience is going to make me work harder in class – especially in science. I want to be a scientist in my career.”
In the meantime, the three students are thrilled to be part of the prestigious SSEP and have an experiment aboard the ISS. Even though they will all be attending high school next year, they’ll return to their old school once the seeds come back down after their second trip to space. “They’ll plant the seeds, do the hard-core research and get strong data to submit to the Canadian Space Agency, Let’s Talk Science and the University of Guelph about what they learned from the re-exposure,” Nickel explains. “They’ll continue to learn and make us proud.”