MILTON, Ga. — In the near future, hundreds of Hopewell Middle School students will have their names listed as co-investigators on a NASA published document.
Students at the school have been participating in the ExoLab Leguminaut Challenge, collecting a myriad of information on the growth of legumes and their relationship to a bacteria that could potentially give rise to growing food in microgravity and on Mars.
As students grow their own legume plants and document their findings, they can simultaneously watch the progress of the same species growing on the International Space Station, orbiting some 254 miles above Earth. Cameras on the station snap a photo of the plants each hour with figures that can be tracked, such as carbon dioxide levels, allowing students to compare their findings.
Hopewell teacher Steve Jones has been using the experiments, run by STEM education organization Magnitude, as a part of his 9-week elective course to connect 7th grade students to space.
“Students in the classroom have the exact same experiment going, and then are able to have access to live data from the [International] Space Station to compare what happens in the classroom versus what’s happening in the station,” Jones said. “The great thing is having so many different eyes looking at all this all the time is somebody is going to see something that somebody else didn’t. And I keep telling the students, that’s what they’re doing, they’re helping find something that no one has seen before.”
The experiments go beyond our world, but they also shrink it. Hopewell students can also compare their information with classrooms around the nation and other countries, such as Germany, Ethiopia and South Africa.
“It gives our students the opportunity to interact with people around the world to see they are part of a bigger picture than what is just going on in my classroom in Milton, Georgia,” Jones said.
Legumes have been the focal point of the research. Legumes have high concentrations of protein and carbohydrates and can serve as a natural fertilizer, making them an attractive food source and crop for life beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Hopewell students have been studying the relationship between legume plants and bacteria strain Rhizobium and its potential to make regolith, the non-organic surface material on Mars, viable as a medium for growing plants, and what legume plant is best suited to be grown in space.
Magnitude CEO Ted Tagami said such experiments are even more crucial for those in middle school. In 20 years, he said, there are expectations to put a person on the surface of Mars. And in two decades, Jones’ students will be around 34 years old, the average age of a NASA astronaut.
“They are the Mars generation,” Tagami said.
While the coronavirus pandemic has altered Jones’ instruction, he has sent participating students two varieties of legume seeds to be grown at home. The plants and the surrounding conditions, such as soil, light and water, are being monitored and documented.
Jones said he has not given his students any particular directions for the experiment, and the resulting data could be more beneficial with so many factors considered.
“They are doing it on their own, and they are doing a really good job,” he said.
The information will form a collective study on which legume will be sent to the International Space Station next year in Magnitude’s next mission.
Magnitude also offers a database in which students and instructors can start their classroom or home experiments at any time and sync it to the start of a previous cycle on the space station.
Jones said his students have enjoyed the experiments, and many have asked to stay with the program after their 9-week course at Hopewell has been completed.
“This is an opportunity to bring learning right to the edge of human discovery,” Tagami said. “And kids are smart, you just have to give them the chance to be smart.”
For more information on the ExoLab Leguminaut Challenge, visit Magnitude.io.