Space-Age Tomatoes at School Elementary Students Work with JU, NASA

Article excerpt

Botany students at Jacksonville University joined hands with students at a Jacksonville Montessori magnet school to help NASA determine the effect of gravity on seeds used to grow food.

In a "Seeds in Space" project, the student researchers analyzed the growth rate of tomato seeds that had been weightless in space on a shuttle mission for 10 days in 1997. They also analyzed tomato seeds that had been subjected to the extreme pressure of deep sea for 10 days and a control group of tomato seeds that had remained on land.

The tomato plants, which are about to bud, are being cared for by 25 students in Naomi Bradford's class for kindergartners and first-graders at J. Allen Axson Elementary School. Axson is a Montessori magnet school in East Jacksonville.

Each school day, the students measure the height and width, count the number of leaves and water the plants in a garden just outside their classroom.

Nine botany students from the class of JU instructor Lisa Muehlstein helped the youngsters plant the seeds and taught them how to record their growth. The seeds that were germinated in JU's lab under artificial lighting showed an earlier start than the ones planted in Styrofoam cups at Axson.

Last month, the youngsters journeyed to JU where they participated with the collegiate botanists in the university's annual undergraduate research symposium. Both the college students and the Axson students presented their own interpretations of their findings.

And before the research project began, Bradford and Muehlstein asked their respective students to predict which of the three groups of seeds would grow the fastest and the largest.

"Our class's predictions were more accurate that the JU students' predictions," Bradford proudly said.

And just which group of seeds is growing the fastest and the largest?

"The Earth-based seeds grew a little bit faster and produced more leaves," Muehlstein said.

The three groups of seeds were assigned numbers when the project began so only Muehlstein knew which were the space-, underwater- or land-based seeds. "We did that to eliminate any bias," she said.

The underwater-based seeds germinated the fastest because they had been in a moist environment, Muehlstein said, and the space-based seeds did not do as well as the other two groups. They produced somewhat smaller plants.

One reason that Muehlstein and Bradford combined their classes for the project is that Muehlstein's two children, Jens Beets, 7, and Kalmia Beets, 5, are students in Bradford's class. Muehlstein's husband is Jim Beets, assistant professor of marine science at JU.

The family lives in Arlington.

"Montessori is a very hands-on type of education," Muehlstein said, "and science is my passion, so this was a beautiful fit. There was a wonderful interaction between the two groups of students. I've learned so much about the education of younger students."

Muehlstein has been teaching at the college level for 10 years. …