More than 250 teachers gathered Saturday at Fairchild Garden House to have brunch and celebrate the kick-off of the annual Fairchild Challenge, which this year includes a partnership with NASA.
The joint venture consists of sending mini botany labs to various middle and high schools in South Florida. The small botanical laboratories hold square compartments that mimic the conditions inside an International Space Station for growing fruits, vegetables and plants.
“The idea is to find edible plants that can produce food for astronauts on the international space station and then hopefully on future longer duration in outer space,” said Dr. Carl Lewis, 41, director of Fairchild Garden.
The Fairchild Challenge is an award-winning environmental science competition based in Miami. Every year, it sets new goals in which 125,000 students and teachers of high-schools and middle-schools work together to meet ecological-related tasks. Last year’s mission was called the Million Orchid Challenge and the goal was to plant one million orchids around South Florida.
The purpose of this year’s experiment is to discover food and plant options that can be grown in outer space, by testing various edible plants that meet NASA’s criteria for size and edibility. Some of the plants tested by the students may be selected as the next crop option to be grown in outer space. Factors that will be studied include plant growth, flavor, and nutrition. The students’ data will help make the decision for which plants should be grown in the spaceship’s veggie facility.
“Our focus is to offer schools multidisciplinary, authentic research opportunities,” said Amy Padolf, 47, Fairchild’s director of education. “The idea is that we want to augment the curriculum and give them an opportunity to do something that is real and tangible, and they can see the results.”
The Fairchild directors contacted NASA after they saw videos regarding The Veggie Project, which spoke about the plants that are being tested by NASA scientists for growth in outer space.
At that time, NASA had only been experimenting with one so far: red romaine lettuce. Padolf and Lewis reached out to see if they wanted to have the students experiment with all kinds of fruits and vegetables that scientists and astronauts could potentially grow on long term missions for self-consumption.
Dr. Gioia Massa, 41 is a project scientist in the exploration, research and technology program at Kennedy Space Center. She was the main contact in regards to the student project.
“You can't really have exploration without inspiration,” Massa said. “We need to have these kids inspired now, because they are the future scientists and engineers who are gonna be doing this work in twenty years. We have to keep that pipeline very vigorous. I think that this Fairchild challenge program is a wonderful opportunity to help students find their passions.”
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