Written by Jake MacTavish
“Are they going to be weird colours?”
“If mine is purple will people pay me a lot of money for it?”
“What if they make our heads explode when we eat them?”
I wouldn’t be surprised if a passerby felt compelled to poke his head into our room as he walked down the hallway. After all, out of context, those questions do seem very bizarre coming out of a grade 5/6 classroom. After listening for a little bit longer, however, the passerby would begin to hear other questions arise:
“How long do tomato seeds take to germinate?”
“Why do we need to have a control group?”
“How are they going to use our results?”
These questions represent genuine queries voiced by grade 5 and 6 students, modelling a strong understanding of scientific concepts and terminology. It is because of these six questions that I believe every class should grow their own space tomatoes; not only does it teach the students valuable lessons about science, it also causes them to ask questions for which they truly want the answer. These questions also signify that my students are developing their inquisitive minds, and thinking like young scientists, for asking questions is precisely what scientists do.
Many of you are probably wondering what exactly a space tomato is. When Chris Hadfield returned to Earth after his stay at the International Space Station, he brought with him 600, 000 tomato seeds that had been in orbit for 22 months. These tomato seeds are made available to schools through a program called Tomatosphere.org, where classes of students are asked to grow these seeds and compare their germination rates to those of ordinary tomato seeds. One of the most empowering aspects of this program is the fact that the Canadian Space Agency actually intends to use the results gained through these thousands of classroom experiments occurring across the country. This means that the students get to be part of a genuine science experiment, which I found was extremely rewarding for my class.
Tomatosphere not only helped me to create a fun and engaging science program for my class, but also lent itself well to integration in other subjects. In language classes, the students read articles about the negative effects of zero gravity on the human body, and how it has caused several health problems for Chris Hadfield now that he has been reintroduced to Earth’s gravity. This research was then used to inform predictions about why the space seeds may or may not have different germination rates than the ordinary ones. Writing classes covered important topics such as procedural writing and writing recounts, but did so in the context of our experiment. I found the students were much more willing to write when the lessons were associated with our tomato project. Math is another subject that was closely linked to our space tomatoes. Students could figure out what percent, or fraction, of the seeds had germinated. Even measurement could be addressed, having students figure out the capacity of the flower pots, and how much soil needed to be used.
This integration is not only beneficial for enriching the students’ learning, but is also good justification for performing this experiment with your class. In the science curriculum, the grade 6 study of Space closely links to the Tomatosphere project, and the topic of biodiversity can also be addressed in the context of the experiment. Other grades’ science topics do not lend themselves quite as well to this project, but the experience does support the development of experimentation skills, and language and math curricula from every grade can be covered as well.
Out of all of the units I experienced teaching as a student teacher, I found this one to be the most rewarding. The lessons were rich with discussion and enthusiasm (from both the teacher and the students) and were lessons that I genuinely enjoyed teaching. I know that the students not only had fun performing this experiment, but also learned a lot, as evidenced through their questions and wonderings, their purposeful writing, and their math learning. This is a project that sparked curiosity and led to inquiry, a project that gave students a chance to actually contribute to the scientific community. Above all else, this was an opportunity to let students learn about something that they were genuinely interested in. After all, who doesn’t want to be a space farmer?
To order seeds of your own (for free!) or to learn more about the scope of the Tomatosphere project, please visit http://www.tomatosphere.org.
Jake MacTavish is a 2014 Galbraith Science Education Award recipient.