HED: Booneville students to play part in space research

By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

BOONEVILLE - Northeast Mississippi finally landed a NASA plant Friday and soon hopes to have hundreds of them.

They're about 2 to 3 inches tall with yellow flowers and not good for much except pure research into plant growth.

But 26 Booneville Middle School seventh-graders jumped at the chance to cultivate the National Aeronautics & Space Administration plants and teach their fellow students to do the same.

John Wilson, an aerospace education specialist from NASA's Stennis Space Center on the Gulf Coast, was in Booneville Friday to introduce the students to the Wisconsin Fast Plant.

It's a relative of lettuce specifically designed for research into plant growth in space.

The students, along with students in other schools across the nation and in the Ukraine, volunteered to participate in CUE, the Collaborative Ukrainian Experiment.

The students will grow the plants here on Earth while a Ukrainian astronaut grows the exact same species on a space shuttle flight set to blast off Nov. 19.

The premise is simple: Determine why plants grown in space can't reproduce themselves.

"So far we've never been able to grow plants in space that grow seeds that are viable for reproduction," Wilson said. "There's something in their reproductive mechanisms that space is affecting."

The microgravity of space likely is the culprit in the plants' failure to reproduce, Wilson said, but more observations are needed to confirm that.

That's where the Booneville students come in.

"They'll serve as the control group for the experimental group flown aboard the shuttle," Wilson said. "The kids will be reporting their data via the Internet."

All of the students in the Booneville project volunteered to care for the plants and make the required observations and reports, said science teacher Tammy Mauney, who, along with gifted and talented teacher Brenda Scott, is overseeing the experiment.

"They didn't have to be straight-A students," Mauney said. "They just had to be willing to complete the training and take responsibility for caring for the plants."

The 26 students participating will teach their approximately 80 seventh-grade colleagues how to care for the plants and report their observations as well.

But at least two of the students in Friday's training session said the real reason they got involved was not a desire to dig in the earth but to fly in space.

"I thought it would be fun and exciting to compare our plants with those on the space shuttle," said 13-year-old David Chase.

"I'm interested in the space shuttle," said Clint Cartwright, 12, who said he had grown plants before but "nothing special."

"We'll learn to grow plants better and how to pollinate them" in space, Cartwright said of the goal of the program.

Mauney said the program also teaches the students another valuable lesson about science.

"So many think science is a textbook," she said. "This is a real life application and we hope it will encourage some of them to pursue a scientific career."

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