NASA wants to get people excited about science. Most recently, the space organization launched MAVEN into orbit and with it over 1,000 haiku written by citizens all over the world. Its next endeavor will ask for the help of schoolchildren. NASA’s object is intriguing – determining whether can the moon support life in the long-term. More specifically, NASA is hoping to start growing plants on the moon by 2015. Not only is this the first life sciences project conducted on another planet, but the results from this project will help scientists to make long-range predictions about the ability of the moon to support life for decades on end. Perhaps most importantly, it is a chance for schoolkids to be a part of some very important science as it is happening.
The plants will be completely encased in small containers (also designed by students), complete with sensors and other devices to send data back to NASA. Upon landing on the moon, a small reservoir of water will be released in each container to wet a piece of filter paper embedded with seeds and nutrients. The container will contain enough air for five days, after which the newly germinated seeds should be able to make their own air and plants will use the reflection of the sun off of the moon as a natural source of light. The habitats will regulate their own water consumption, temperature and power supply. The seedlings will be photographed at regular intervals and then compared with plants growing in control groups back on Earth. Interestingly, NASA’s choice of plants are basil, turnips and Arabadopsis, a plant related to mustard that many scientists use for testing due to its fast growth rate (also known as the Wisconsin Fast Plant).
This is where the schoolchildren come in and the fun begins. Instead of copying the experiment hundreds of times over, special growth kits and habitats will be distributed to schools. The students will then be responsible for running the experiments themselves and sending their data in to NASA, which the space agency will then compare to the results of the moon experiments. Basically, NASA is asking children to help them figure out if the moon can support human life. Truly, there may be no better incentive to get kids pumped about science. But that’s not all - NASA is no stranger to involving students in their research. On November 19, NASA launched 11 cube-shaped research satellites into orbit - including one created by high school students. This satellite, the first ever created by high school students, contains a voice synthesizer module that will take written phrases in the form of code and produce a phonetic voice reading projected back to Earth. Those students will soon be able to receive transmissions from these satellites and will be responsible for their operation. Can you imagine being in high school and having the responsibility of taking care of a satellite, as well as the data is transmits?
In both of these cases, students are contributing real data to real NASA missions. This is something that NASA is becoming increasingly good at, which is enabling students to make a personal connection with science. Whether it is creating art, participating in experiments or creating new technology, working with NASA on their missions, even in some small way, gives people a greater stake in their success. This is important not just for NASA, but for science in general. People of all ages are more likely to stay engaged in a subject in which they have had some personal participation. Research shows that free-choice learning represents the greatest single contributor to adult science knowledge. However, many adult interests start in childhood and these early life experiences are fundamental to creating life-long learners.
The benefits of giving kids an emotional connection with science are clear and sharing in real science as it happens is a great way to do that. Research shows that when students feel connected to a topic, they are able to be more creative in their response. Connection fosters creativity and kids that can combine cognitive and emotional connections are more likely to forge life-long connections and become life-long science lovers. Even students themselves will tell you the same thing; in response to Slate magazine’s call for ways in which to improve science education, once recent high school graduate wrote, “Expose students to scientific research–expose them early and often. Let them unleash their open minds and innate talent for problem-solving against the world’s most pressing questions.” This student is asking for a challenge and a chance to engage in something real. He goes on to cite a 2010 study published by 8-10 years old the Royal Society Journal. Not only are those particular students the youngest to ever be published in this journal, but they clearly had a good time doing it. They wrote in their paper, “This experiment is important, because no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before.” These students were motivated by their own curiosity, inspired by their own interests and observations. Clearly, giving kids the opportunity to do real science is a proven way to create the emotional and cognitive punch needed to spur them on. This is important because we need a future in which people are invested in science; without creating a new generation of scientists and passionate citizens, there will be little support for research and even less understanding of why we do it all.
To learn more about NASA’s moon plants and their life science missions, check out their website. If you are interested in NASA’s student opportunities, check out their education website. For more info about the lunar plants, read this press release.
To learn more about informal science education and free-choice learning, check out the Center for Advancement of Informal Science.
To read more about the youngest students ever published in the Royal Society Journal, check out this great article. Read the full paper here.
The above photos were taken by Cory Doman and NASA, respectively.