Growing Plants in Space is the New Post-Pandemic Normality

Guest blog post by Javier Montiel, M. Ed.

It is 8:00 AM, and the students know exactly what to do.

As they enter the classroom, one student turns on the computer monitor that displays the space images from ISS Above and checks the maps to see when the ISS will fly over our school, another student checks the test tubes inside the ExoLab for signs of growth.

In our window frame, with a beautiful morning sun shining through the window, another student takes her test tube and starts screaming, “It grew, it grew!” Other students quickly gather around her to see her test tube as she shares her observations with her friends. With excitement, she runs to me to explain what are the changes from the day before, as new plant structures become more evident with the time.

Taking their binders, test tubes, and Chromebooks, the students write their observations while using their hand lenses and rulers. They enter their growth data in a shared spreadsheet and finally enter the ExoLab platform to see how the plant has been growing every hour since we started our experiment. It is day number 4 out of 30 in our ground-trial experiments in a dynamic second-grade bilingual classroom.

Routines and procedures play an important role in our daily activities. They help us to bring structure and organization to our everyday lives. They are so critical that after constant repetition, they become habits, and habits are the guiding reins of our future, driving on autopilot.

This is why procedures and routines play an important part in the classroom culture and structure. But what happens when you mix taking care of plants, observations, research, and literacy as part of a daily routine to create a new post-pandemic normality?

Diverse studies have concluded that gardening offers many benefits. According to Soga et al. (2016), gardening “can improve physical, psychological, and social health, which can, from a long-term perspective, alleviate and prevent various health issues facing today’s society.”

These benefits have also been studied in space suggesting that taking care of plants in confined environments helps to alleviate some adverse psychological factors by taking care of these living organisms.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson wrote in an email to her friends and family, “I guess seeing something green for the first time in a month and a half had a real effect. From a psychological perspective, I think it’s interesting that the reaction was as dramatic as it was.” Can these benefits be extrapolated to a regular classroom?

The majority of students around the world have grown up seeing plants in their environments. They are pretty familiar with the process of how a seed grows. What is interesting for me as a teacher to observe in elementary students is their sense of surprise, pride, and personal connection to their plants.

The students tend to form bonds with a living organism as they observe and take care of it. Without noticing they are writing a science diary of a plant, leaving a written testimony of the evolution of a plant from seed to a full adult plant.

The experience of growing plants in space, not only allows the opportunity for students to develop observation and science inquiry skills, but it opens new avenues for students to develop life-long learning abilities through cross-curricular skills.

Imagine an iceberg where the phenomenon of growing plants in space is at its peak. At the base, we have all the curricular standards that allow educators to support and gain knowledge about the study of plants’ in normal circumstances; but at the bottom deep in the water, we have all those professional transferable skills such as problem-solving, writing, analytical reasoning, critical thinking, adaptability, and teamwork that are activated through the experience of research an uncommon problem such as growing plants in extreme environments such as in space.

If we incorporate science research as part of our routines and procedures, and if we do it long enough, these experiences can start sprouting into new lifelong habits, and with the guidance and nurture of teachers, they can become part of the nature of a student.

We need to bring back the joy of doing science by observing and taking care of living things such as plants. It doesn’t matter if it is in your classroom or orbiting around our planet 254 miles far away.

We need to develop those high-order thinking skills by observing and recording all those changes in space plants once their normal growth patterns are altered by being exposed to microgravity or even with different light conditions.

I don’t know in what grade children stop being curious and why, but at least not in this dynamic second-grade bilingual classroom.

Javier Montiel M.Ed. studied at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey Campus Cuernavaca and earned his Masters at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. He now works as a bilingual teacher in Freeport, Texas daily inspiring curiosity and ingenuity with second graders.

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