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How many young scientists over the years have longingly looked up to the stars and thought: perhaps one day?
For a group of WSD STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) students, that time is now.
Student teams from Grosvenor and Wolseley schools had their scientific experiments chosen to board the International Space Station as part of the Student Spaceflights Experiments Program.
The National Centre for Earth and Space Science program is an educational initiative designed to inspire and engage the next generation of scientists.
Students across North America formed scientific teams to devise experiments that could be carried out by astronauts aboard the space station. A total of 16 WSD schools, and 560 students, participated in the SSEP project. Students had initial training sessions at WSD's Inner City Science Centre before heading back to their schools to generate experiments for the program.
Many of the students' experiments and scientific discussions centred on how to feed our astronauts in space.
"We were thinking not only of the International Space Station…we were thinking beyond to some of our next missions, like Mars," said WSD Science Consultant Kristin Melnyk, who worked closely with WSD school teams on the project. "We talked about the constraints you would have as an astronaut travelling these long distances. One of the most common themes that came up was food, and food quality."
Three projects were chosen as WSD finalists. All three explored the impact of microgravity on plant life.
"Most people think there is zero gravity in space, but there is actually microgravity," said Grosvenor student Madeline Stewart. "And we want to see how it will affect our plants in space."
1. Grosvenor School: Growth of Lacinato in Microgravity
Teacher: Brandy Anderson
Co-Principal Investigators: Charlie Buehler (Grade 6), Keaton Fish (Grade 6)
Co-Investigators: Quinn McMullan (Grade 6), Kale Peterson (Grade 6)
Collaborators: Merrik Williamson (Grade 6)
The Grosvenor project examines the growth of Lacinato—a type of kale—in space.
"Kale has plenty of vitamins and it grows well," said student Merrik Williamson. "We are hoping that microgravity will help kale grow bigger and better in space."
2. Wolseley School : Can Yarrow germinate in microgravity?
Teacher/Administrator Mentor: Suzanne Mole
Co-Principal Investigators: Betty Ngo (Grade 5), Emelia Stephenson (Grade 6), Kiara Dayson (Grade 5), Madeline Stewart (Grade 6), Sarah Dayson (Grade 6).
The Wolseley students' experiment was inspired by their school's own garden—which happens to have Yarrow.
"Yarrow has medicinal properties…Indigenous people have used it for a very long time," said student Madeline Stewart. "You can cure hay fever and headaches by making Yarrow into a tea, and you can cure toothaches by chewing the fresh leaves. You can also treat wounds by making the Yarrow into a tincture."
3. Lord Nelson School: Duckweed: A tiny aquatic plant that floats but a very important part of our lives.
Teacher: Clara Haimes-Kusumoto
Co-Principal Investigators: Andre Bardelas (Grade 5), Czarina Mabilen (Grade 5).
Co-Investigators: Jancel De Leon (Grade 5), Juliana Pescasio (Grade 6), Eon Rodriguez (Grade 5).
The Lord Nelson experiment examined the impact microgravity has on the absorption rate of phosphorus by Lemna minor (duckweed) when it returns to Earth (after being exposed to microgravity). They are also measuring the growth rate of Lemna minor in microgravity versus Earth.
Duckweed can be used for many purposes: filtering dirty water, fertilizing crops, biofuel, animal feed, and food for humans. These are some of the issues that people will have when going to Mars; Lord Nelson students believe their project could help alleviate these issues for space travellers.
Student Andrew Bardelas said the idea for the experiment grew out of students studying different ways to help Lake Winnipeg, which is often overrun with algae.
"Our original idea was to study cattails, which are found in marshlands," said student Andre Bardelas. "We found out that cattails can absorb phosphorus…but they also take a long time to grow. So we did more research and chose duckweed instead."
All of the various schools' projects were subject to many strict requirements.
"Our experiments had to start and stop in space, which was a struggle," Grosvenor student Keaton Fish. "The seeds couldn't be growing when we sent them to Cape Canaveral and they had to stop growing in space."
Experiments had to be able to fit in a small Fluid Mixing Enclosure, a three-compartment structure that is no bigger than a medium size test tube.
"We had to figure out where to put our soil, seeds and water so the astronauts could unlock a chamber so the water and soil could connect with the seed in space," Keaton said. "One of the compartments had to be dedicated to material for stopping the experiment. We used salt to stop the growth of our plant in space."
Judges were so impressed with WSD entries that they selected two projects to board the ISS in June; both the Grosvenor and Wolseley projects were selected for the mission.
Representatives from both schools travelled to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to watch the rocket launch that would carry their projects to the ISS. The launch took place as scheduled on June 29.
"What a journey," Ms. Melnyk said. "It was such an emotional experience to see our students' work launch into space."
The Lord Nelson students were also busy in June, as they travelled to Washington, D.C. to present their project at the Smithsonian Institute's National Space and Air Museum.
"Our school is very proud of all the hard work our students have put into this project," Ms. Haimes-Kusumoto said. "They gave up recesses, choice time and chess time…and there was lots of homework and research on weekends and evenings to put their project together."
The teacher added that there was tremendous value in having students work on a long-term group project together.
"They learned and made many mistakes along the way," she said. "Each time they did an experiment, they learned something new—how to improve their project and make it better. And they also learned to work together as a team, which is very important."
With the enormous costs attached to every material and person that is sent into outer space, Keaton said the students' research was important to help secure sustainable gardens and food supplies in space.
"It's important to explore space and see what else is out there. And the astronauts need to be healthy and fully charged to do that," he said.
Wolseley Principal Suzanne Mole said it may take a while before it sinks in with students as to how close they have come to outer space—an unlikely connection that past scientists could only dream of.
"The idea that our project, that came from our own school garden, is going to be flying in space over our heads…it's astronomical," Ms. Mole said.