Elementary students participate in plant growth experiment taking place on International Space Station

Beth Kornegay/Special to the Times
Glenwood Ridge Elementary School kindergarten students Jack Baldwin, Harry Budimlija and Everly Pike worked together to grow red clover as part of a science experiment.

Basehor-Linwood elementary schools are taking advantage of Linwood Elementary School teacher Lisa Turney’s role as an Astro_moji mission specialist working with a science experiment currently taking place at the International Space Station.

Turney was selected from more than 550,000 participants to virtually teach about a science experiment involving red clover being grown 250 miles above Earth on the ISS. 

Those seeds were sent via the NG-15 Cargo Resupply Mission which launched Feb. 20 and will return in May. The purpose of the experiment is to achieve effective plant growth in space for long-term space travel, including a potential colonization of Mars.  

Red clover is used because it has flowers and leaves which are edible and the plant is also high in protein.

Can plants grow in space?

Students at Glenwood Ridge Elementary School got involved in the experiments and were asked to hypothesize about whether or not plants can grow in space. Appropriate grade-level assignments included kindergarten students learning about plants and how they grow through group reading and videos. 

“Understanding the needs and parts of a plant is a kindergarten standard and having our students complete this project in technology class made it a real-life, hands-on experiment and deepened their understanding,” said kindergarten teacher Diane Smith.

Third- through fifth-graders were asked to expand on the question by thinking specifically about legume plants. Fifth-grade students researched nitrogen cycle through online resources and created a digital model. Each grade level had research assignments to learn more about the life cycle of plants, life in space, the environment on Mars and data collection. During remote learning days, students even asked to see the plants over Zoom to check on their progress.

The growing media each grade used was also unique and age appropriate. Kindergarten, first- and second-graders grew their plants in soil. Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders grew their plants on agar with a rhizobia bacteria and water mixture placed on top of the seeds. Plants need nitrogen to survive and that usually comes from soil. However, soil will not contain the same ingredients in space or on Mars, so scientists are looking for an alternative way to provide plants with nitrogen.

Growing red clover plants on earth

Building technology coordinator Nicole Davis sees students on a four-week rotation schedule. Students she saw in week one planted the red clover seeds and collected data on what changes they observed in that plant during the week. During weeks two, three and four, students were charged with caring for the plant and collecting data. Most recently, the students have planted the red cover plants outside. Assignments were given to ensure everyone was contributing to the team including digging, planting, soil leveling and watering duties.

Davis said that she considers the experiment a success, even though some plants didn’t survive due to overwatering or poor soil.

“On our end, we had a handful of plants that flourished. Our students realized that they can have an impact on the world. We also had to develop some grit and patience, especially the younger grades, as we discovered that it takes awhile for plants to grow,” she said.

Since the classroom at Glenwood Ridge doesn’t have any windows to allow in natural light to help the plants to grow, the students were able to relate that with issues that scientists and astronauts may experience in space. The overall project lasted eight weeks.

While the common conception of technology class is that students are in front of a computer the entire time, Davis is happy that students have learned that technology also involves the advancement of humankind as it impacts the world and beyond. By participating in this experiment, students had the experience of being part of that world impact.