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Tomatosphere – Real Science for your students

How is it “real science”?

Tomatosphere, a nationally acclaimed education program, provides a “real science” experience for your students in grades 3, 6 and 9-10.  What better “hook” can you provide for your students than the opportunity to provide input for long distance ventures into space, including the mission to Mars?  Tomatosphere provides the opportunity for students to contribute in a REAL manner to space travel for the future.  For the teacher, the program is DIRECTLY related to the science curriculum – plants (grade 3), space (grade 6) and space (grade 9 – 10).  Optional units provide links to weather on Mars and nutrition for long-term space travel.

Tomatosphere has been operating since 2001 and has provided the opportunity for input to more than a million students in that time.  Currently, there are more than 12 500 classes registered for the program, almost all in Canada. The basic element of the Tomatosphere experience is the germination of two (or more) sets of tomato seeds in a “blind” experiment; teachers receive two (or more) packages of seeds labeled only with a letter for identification.  When the experiment is completed, and results have been submitted, teachers and students receive notification identifying the sources of the seeds (both the control group and the “other/treated” group”) and a “certificate of participation” for the students, signed by Canadian astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, and the principal investigator of the science component, Dr. Michael Dixon of the University of Guelph. In 2010, the “other group” involved seeds sent to the International Space Station in the fall of 2009.

How are the seeds treated?

When seeds in space are not available, seeds are exposed to simulated conditions which will enhance our research for long term space travel – space environment simulation, Mars environment simulation or simulation of the entry into a different planetary environment using aerocapture.  Each of the non-control groups are defined and explained for the teacher and students on the tomatosphere web site – www.tomatosphere.org.

What have we found so far?

Through the variety of conditions – real space travel or simulations – the experiment has yielded valuable information about the effects of these environments on the germination, growth and vigour of plants.  To date, none of the situations to which the seeds have been exposed has created a negative effect on the seeds, compared to the control group.  This is good news for the future of space travel; however, there are still elements to be explored, and these will be investigated in the next phase of Tomatosphere, from 2011 – 2013.

How do we measure Tomatosphere’s success?

Tomatosphere is a unique Canadian program for students.  Its success can be measured in a number of ways.  In 2007, Tomatosphere was awarded the Alouette Award for its innovative approach to space research.  Although this was a very significant event in the evolution of Tomatosphere, the evaluation of the program from teachers on an annual basis, and an arms-length evaluation of the program illustrate the success of the program from an educational perspective.  The evaluation indicated that teachers felt that Tomatosphere was a valuable addition to their regular classroom curriculum (96%) and, felt that ….

the project met their classroom needs  (92%),

it introduced and/or reinforced the scientific method for their students (97%)

promoted collaboration among students (92%) and, perhaps most importantly,

98% indicated that the project increased student interest in science.

Who are the sponsors of Tomatosphere?

Tomatosphere is a unique collaborative project with the involvement of government, academia and the private sector.  The Canadian Space Agency and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are the government representatives on the consortium team.  In addition, Ontario Centres of Excellence, an Ontario government agency has provided tremendous support for the program.  The University of Guelph – specifically the research facility dealing with closed environment systems (Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility) provides the academic expertise for the program.  The private sector is represented by Stokes Seeds, Heinz Canada and Heinz Seeds; their connections are obvious and very necessary to the success of the program. This unique collaboration has proven to be instrumental to the success of Tomatosphere.

What support is provided by the project for me as a teacher and for my students?

The Tomatosphere web site has evolved into a source of a wide range of information about space travel, food in space, and, most important for teachers – all of the information required to conduct the experiment and to provide the students with a positive experience in the basic germination experiment and beyond.  Optional activities are provided for a range of grades.  Lesson plans, teacher background information, key hotlinks to space-related websites, assessment suggestions – even letters for parents and instructions to involve the media are provided.  The Project Manager for Tomatosphere is also available for assistance should something “go wrong”.

How do I get involved?

Registration is simple and quick – at www.tomatosphere.org. Teachers can sign up for spring 2011 seeds; the origin of the non-control group will be decided later in the summer of 2010.  The supply of seeds for spring and fall 2010 has been exhausted.

The role that Canada will play in the future of space travel will focus on several areas including robotics, the effects of space on the human body, and the provision of food for long-term space travel.  You can help your students to be involved with these ventures by enrolling in Tomatosphere.  It will provide you with a simple, easily administered program which is curriculum-driven, Canadian and “real science”.

Robert Morrow

Project Manager, Tomatosphere