PLANTS IN SPACE (and in Springdale)

by Dan Mullins

Springdale Elementary school students have been doing a science experiment. Unlike most experiments, however, this one will fly aboard a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, launching atop a Falcon 9 rocket, scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in October of this year.

Springdale is the first school in Canada to participate in the ExoLab project, which was introduced to them by former LBPSB teacher and consultant Dianea Phillips. ExoLab-10, as the experiment is known, is the tenth in a series of experiments. Entitled “Carbon Farmer,” and subtitled “Capturing Carbon Dioxide for Survival on Earth and in Space,” the project involves growing alfalfa in an ExoLab device. Students are trying to capture the most carbon by growing the largest alfalfa plants they can in a medium called agar, which is a substance obtained from algae and is used in certain foods.

The ExoLab website describes the device: “The dimensions of the ExoLab device both terrestrially and in-orbit are based on the common CubeSat specification, which standardizes satellite payloads in an approximate 10 cm cuboid format. ExoLab is in a 2U format, which means that its dimensions are 10 x 10 x 22 cm, approximately.


Within this compact frame are a series of sensors to capture, record, and report data, including images, as well as a system to keep the test organisms alive. All of these operate autonomously and continuously.”


Springdale students had some serious learning to do. They had to learn how to handle, and then to use, a magnifying glass. They needed to learn terminology like “nodulation” and what CO2 is. Phillips reports that the students “were in a really good mental space” and that their “classroom turned into a lab.”

Students are able to use a link to check on the progress of the plants, as the ExoLab device takes pictures every few seconds, as well as measuring light and carbon dioxide levels. It communicates over the internet with the students, and with other versions of the experiment that are running simultaneously in classrooms around the world.

Phillips herself has a huge résumé, with titless after her name like B.Ed., but also more exotic titles such as SEEC CREW member, and Principal Investigator with ExoLab, the only one in Canada. She has also flown in zero gravity and worked at the Johnson Space Center. Phillips’ companies, including Science Yourself! No G’s About It! and STEAMGENUITY both aim to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math to young people, the latter specifically to girls.

This fall, Springdale students will likely be glued to their computers and tablets via a special to watch the launch of one of the ExoLab devices into space. Data collected there will be compared to that of the terrestrial parts of the experiment. We look forward to hearing the results!