Plant Biology Research
Growing Plants in Space
Students Plug In to Plant Biology Research on the International Space Station, by Mary Musgraves
In March of 2002, students around Massachusetts will get a taste of how telescience is done on board the International Space Station (ISS), courtesy of a collaborative project at UMass funded by the Massachusetts Space Consortium.
The project is called LEO then Beyond because it focuses on research taking place today in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) in preparation for human exploration beyond our planet. LEO then Beyond is a mini-curriculum that prepares students to participate in a plant biology experiment on the ISS in real time in their classrooms. Activities introduce students to microgravity ("weightlessness"), the importance of plants in space, and the fundamentals of Bioregenerative Life Support Systems (BLSS).
The concept of "closed loop living" is central to a BLSS. Plants play a central role by purifying wastewater, restoring oxygen to the air, and providing a food source for astronauts. Students see these principles in action as they take a virtual tour of a BLSS analog in Amherst, MA, called Bioshelters.
Bioshelters, Inc. was a commercial aquaculture/hydroponics system that produces fish and basil. Bioshelters consisted of a recirculating aquaculture system linked with a flow-through hydroponics system. Water originating at the fish tanks is pumped through a series of filters to the hydroponics array, and then back to the fish tanks. Bioshelters has a 99.7% water recycling efficiency-close to the level of recycling NASA would like to see in future human outposts on the Moon or Mars.
As one of the companies participating in the collaboration, Bioshelters opened its doors to computer scientists at UMass, who created the virtual tour under the direction of Dr. Beverly Woolf. After taking the virtual tour, students test their knowledge by trying to grow their own fish and basil using "Simbioshelters" software. Woolf is interested in how such "intelligent tutor" technology aids learning.
John Reid, who was president of Bioshelters, said that school groups often toured his facility, which demonstrated many principles of biology, engineering and ecology. Having the virtual tour on the web allows a larger number of students to learn about Bioshelters without leaving their classrooms. It also provides an excellent preparation for students who come to facility in person.
With this background on plant biology in space, students are ready to link with the experiment on the International Space Station. Starting in March, when a shuttle docks at the ISS to begin increment 8A, plants will be grown on ISS in a device called the Biomass Production System.
Students learn how the Biomass Production System hardware works and build a simulator in their own classrooms. Along the way they explore a challenge faced by astronauts on ISS-learning complex procedures using a computer-based intelligent tutor, and compare the results of this kind of learning with conventional instruction.
During the experiment on ISS, the students retrieved data and images as they come down from the space station and compare plant growth in space with the growth of their own plants in the classroom simulators. The data are provided courtesy of Orbital Technologies Corporation, an aerospace company in Madison, Wisconsin, which has built the Biomass Production System for NASA. Orbitec is the third collaborator of the UMass team.
NASA-funded space grant consortia, like the one in Massachusetts, provide funds for the development and use of space-related educational outreach activities. The UMass team, led by Mary Musgrave, Associate Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, developed the curriculum, the hardware simulator, and the intelligent tutor computer software overa two-year period.
Teacher training workshops began in December with presentations in Woods Hole, MA and Madison, WI. The curriculum has also been adopted by NASA as a pilot program (contact Bonnie McClain, Chief of OBPR Educational Outreach, firstname.lastname@example.org)..