May 31, 2024

Science experiments chart new path for students at Manchester School

By Kaysa Jalbert

Small steps are being made by students for another giant leap for mankind. This spring, six teams from Manchester School in Windham participated in the Plant the Moon and Plant Mars challenge, a global science experiment and inspirational project-based-learning challenge to see who can grow the best crops using lunar and Martian regolith simulant, a type of rocky soil mix.

Manchester School fifth-grade students called the 'Green
Team' earned 'Best in Show' awards at the elementary
school level for their scientific experiment to grow
lettuce in the Plant the Moon challenge from the Maine
Space Grant Consortium. SUBMITTED PHOTO  
One of the groups of students, who call themselves the Green Team, earned Best in Show awards at the school level for their experiment to grow lettuce. The Green Team’s hypothesis tested how layering soil, compost, and regolith differently would affect the growth of lettuce.

“I am incredibly pleased for them,” says Manchester School fifth-grade teacher Tracy Henderson. “It was a tremendous amount of work. But it’s a really big deal that they won this.”

Two classrooms at the school participated, with three teams in Henderson’s classroom who participated in Plant the Moon Challenge where students used lunar regolith simulant to test plant growth, and another three teams in Cindy Moore’s classroom who experimented for Plant Mars using Martial regolith simulant.

Henderson said the experiment gave students the opportunity to exhibit extraordinary leadership.

“That was really fun to watch over the course of a couple of months watching kids really become leaders,” she said.

The Plant the Moon and Plant Mars Challenge is part of a new United States initiative to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before through NASAs Artemis Campaign. Its purpose is to explore the moon for scientific discovery, make technology advancements, and to learn how to live and work on another world as humans prepare for manned missions to Mars.

The other two teams in Henderson’s class called themselves the Blue Team and Red Team. The Blue Team tested the differences in growth of radishes and spinach using a blue light or regular grow light, and the Red Team tested how different amounts of soil, compost, and regolith would affect the growth of spinach.

In Moore’s classroom for Plant Mars, teams included The Seven Seeds who grew radishes, Team Astreaus who grew lettuce and radishes, and Team Nyx who grew bok choy. Their independent variables were either the amount of water or type of fertilizer based on pH, and use of pink light.

“It involves a lot of work, for Mrs. Moore and myself because no one in Maine has ever done something like this before and we certainly have never done this kind of project before,” says Henderson. “It involves teaching a lot of vocabulary like what is a variable and what does control mean in an experiment.”

The classrooms of Henderson and Moore received a grant to complete their experiment from the Maine Space Grant Consortium (MSGC), a non-profit organization that is affiliated with NASA.

"There is a Space Grant in every state, including DC and Puerto Rico. We run, conduct, and fund NASA and other STEM programs in Maine,” said Jana Hall of Maine Space Grant Consortium. “Plant the Moon/Mars is a NASA program and so far, that we are aware of, we haven’t had any Maine schools participate yet until Manchester Elementary.”

Henderson said that the idea of participating in the challenge was brought to her by a mother of one of her previous students whose younger sibling is now in Moore’s class. The student’s mother, Nikki Becker, is a scientist and on the Board of Directors with the Maine Space Grant Consortium. She proposed the idea in Henderson’s classroom while giving a presentation one day, and since then has helped the school get in contact with MSGC to receive the grant and sign up for the competition.

“We really owe it to her,” says Henderson.

After signing up for the challenge, each team of students received a lunar or Martian soil simulant package complete with pots, masks, and a pH meter or strips and a digital Project Guide from the Institute of Competition Sciences. The lunar and Martian soil simulants are specially designed to mimic the soil of the Moon or Mars in chemistry, composition, grain size, and density. Following the Project Guide, students create your own experiment to examine important variables related to plant growth in the simulant.

In their experiment to grow lettuce from lunar soil by layering the compost, soil and regolith, the Green Team faced student-scientist type challenges such as going on February vacation, which was solved by another teacher taking care of the plants while they were away. At one point, they faced “having no school, no power, and no water for our plants for about four days, but luckily they survived,” as the team described their findings.

In their report, the Green Team wrote that they kept track of data by measuring the height of their lettuce plants every week, however the results showed “the (plants) that didn't grow had moss that absorbed most of the water and the ones that didn't grow that didn't have moss but had bad seeds.” The team concluded by saying “we think that the layers did not work because the plant that grew the best did not have any layers. It was mixed together.” <

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