VISTA STUDENTS SOW THE SEEDS OF KNOWLEDGE IN SPACE
By Ray Huard
A hunt for organic strawberry seeds that took three Vista sixth graders all the way to Portugal via the internet won their experiment a place on the International Space Station.
Karsyn Lee, 11, said she was “blown away” when she learned that the experiment she designed with Vista Magnet Middle School classmates Victoria Arsenault, 11, and Lexie Kondo, 12, was chosen to be sent up to the space station later this year as part of the Student Spaceflights Experiment Program (SSEP).
“This is going to look really good on college applications,” said Karsyn, who already has her eyes on the University of California Davis, where she wants to study veterinary medicine.
Lexie, who has toyed with the idea of becoming an orthodontist, said she was “super happy” to have her experiment chosen.
She said her parents took the whole family out for frozen yogurt to celebrate when they heard the good news.
Equally enthusiastic, Victoria said it was “very cool” to have her team’s experiment chosen.
She plans to continue looking skyward as a meteorologist.
“I just think the weather is pretty cool,” Victoria said. “If you look up, every day, it’s different.”
The experiment the three proposed is to see how seeds from a type of strawberry, arbutus unedo, will sprout in the microgravity of the space station, Karsyn said.
Ultimately, she said their experiment, combined with others, will help determine how people will feed themselves on long space missions.
Accompanying the experiment will be mission patches designed by Vista Magnet School eighth grader Callie O’Connor, 14, (pictured below) and Grapevine Elementary School fifth-grader Daisy Sanches, 11.
Vista Magnet is one of 14 communities in the United States and Canada participating in the SSEP’s Mission 8.
The program was started five years ago by the National Center for Earth and Space Science in partnership with NanoRacks LLC, the flight services provider. The goal is to promote interest in space and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
SSEP was expanded internationally in 2012 through the Arthur C. Clarke Institute.
Earlier this year, the entire student body at Vista Magnet was divided into teams of three to five students. Each team developed a proposed experiment which could be sent to the International Space Station.
The experiments had to fit in a narrow tube 6.7 inches long.
Three proposed experiments were chosen by a six-member panel assembled by Vista Magnet Principal Anne Green. They were submitted to a second panel chosen by the SSEP, which picked the one to submit to NASA.
Lexie said she came up with the idea of using strawberry seeds because “I like to go strawberry picking.”
They chose the variety arbutus unedo because it was a kind of strawberry they’d never heard of with unusual characteristics, like growing on trees.
“I didn’t know strawberries grow on trees,” Victoria said.
The fruit also looks different - spikey and round.
“It’s not very tasty, but you can cook with it if you want,” Karsyn said.
To meet NASA’s requirements, the seeds had to be organic, and that was a challenge.
Finding arbutus unedo seeds was easy, but finding a supplier who could guarantee they were organic was another matter.
Finally, with the help of their teacher, Christine Bartee, the students tracked down a seed company in Portugal, which could verify that the seeds were organic.
Bartree said she got help through the Internet from Ana Vasques, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal.
As described by Karsyn, Victoria and Lexie, their experiment separates a plastic tube into three chambers with a valve connecting each chamber.
One chamber will contain the seeds in a rock wool soil. A second will contain a mixture of willow water and honey. The third contains formalin, a clear solution of formaldehyde in water, which acts as a preservative.
Aboard the space station, station crew members will release a clamp to mix the contents of the first two chambers. Just before the tube is returned to Earth, they’ll release a second clamp to mix in the formalin to stop the seeds from growing any further.
“We don’t want it to do anything while it comes back to Earth, because we want to know the effect of microgravity,” Victoria said.
The students will perform the same experiment on Earth, and compare the results with the experiment from the space station.
Besides designing the experiment itself, the students had to prepare a 2,000 word essay describing their proposal.
“It takes a lot of thought, designing that experiment,” Bartee said. “It’s what real scientists need to consider in designing an experiment for the International Space Station.”
Designing a mission patch was fun for Callie O’Connor.
“I like to draw,” Callie said, although, like Karsyn, her career goal is to become a veterinarian.
“It’s kind of weird to hear something of yours is going into space,” Callie said.
Her patch shows a gray rocket blasting off from a green and blue Earth in the background against a black background to represent outer space. The rocket has the letters SSEP and VMMS on it, to represent the school and the student experiment program.
The round patch has a maroon border, representing the school color, with the words Student Space Flight Experiments Program in black.
Callie’s patch was selected in a district-wide competition, with one winner from elementary school and one from upper level grades.
The patch designed by Daisy Sanches shows her school’s mascot - a bear - wearing a blue space suit, holding his helmet, standing on a gray moon against a blue background next to a black spaceship with the letters “USA” on its side.
“Education is the Future,” is printed in yellow lettering in the upper right corner of the square patch.
“My patch symbolizes, if you have a good education, you can reach for the stars,” Daisy wrote in describing her patch.