Tomatosphere motivates students to reach for the stars

Last week, I was in Toronto participating in the annual general meeting of Tomatosphere. Tomatosphere is a Canadian project that promotes science learning at the grade school level (students aged 8 – 14).  It connects students’ fascination with space travel and the role that green plants must someday play in the life support system of space habitats.

Tomatosphere seeds are exposed each year to actual or simulated spaceflight conditions. I flew with these 600,000 seeds aboard the International Space Station a few years ago and then distributed them to participating classrooms.

Tomatosphere seeds are exposed each year to actual or simulated spaceflight conditions. I flew with these 600,000 seeds aboard the International Space Station a few years ago and then distributed them to participating classrooms.

For each of the previous years of the Tomatosphere project, 600,000 tomato seeds have been exposed to an environmental condition such as actual or simulated spaceflight.  For example, past batches of seeds have been exposed to space shuttle flight, expeditions aboard the International Space Station and a variety of simulated Mars environments. One batch of seeds even wintered-over in the Canadian high arctic. The space seeds that will be distributed to classes for this academic year spent five weeks in April/May aboard the ISS.

The Tomatosphere project team – what an eclectic but wonderful bunch!

The Tomatosphere project team – what an eclectic but wonderful bunch!

An equal number of seeds remain in normal Earth conditions and serve as ‘controls’ for comparison with the ‘space’ seeds. A small number of both groups of seeds are then mailed to each participating classroom. Without knowing which seeds are ‘space’ or ‘control’, the students sow both sets of seeds and measure the germination and growth rates of the seedlings. This methodology introduces the ‘blind study’ concept to the students and adds an element of classroom mystery. The students enjoy the hands-on approach to learning and feel that they are contributing to future space technologies.

Since its inception, Tomatosphere has been supported by several government, corporate, academic and non-profit organizations. While Tomatosphere is certainly based on a creative concept, it is also the strength of the partnership that is responsible for its success. The current partners are the Canadian Space Agency, the University of Guelph, Heinz Canada, HeinzSeed, Stokes Seeds and Let’s Talk Science. Each partner organization supports science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Each feels a social responsibility to work with Canadian schools to nurture the next generation of scientists, engineers, physicians, horticulturalists and astronauts.

Tomatosphere has now become a fixture in Canadian classrooms. Last year alone, students in 15,000 classrooms enhanced their learning of plant biology, nutritional science and space exploration. Since 2001, an estimated three-and-a-half million students have participated.

Students measure the height of tomato seedlings grown in their classroom.  They determine the average germination and growth rates of their ‘space’ and ‘control’ seeds and report the results to the Tomatosphere website.

Students measure the height of tomato seedlings grown in their classroom. They determine the average germination and growth rates of their ‘space’ and ‘control’ seeds and report the results to the Tomatosphere website.

Human missions beyond Earth orbit are now being considered by international space agencies. However, the challenges of supporting life far away from our home planet are not insignificant (BTW, I’m looking forward to next month’s movie The Martian starring Matt Damon – it will well demonstrate the difficulty of surviving in space). The astronauts who will participate in these future interplanetary missions are alive today and learning the fundamentals of science in grade school.  I like to think that Tomatosphere may be the educational spark that motivates one of them to reach for the stars.

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