In 2015, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (Fairchild), located in Miami-Dade County, Florida, entered into partnership with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to help advance NASA’s plant research through classroom-based STEM citizen science with a project entitled, Growing Beyond Earth (GBE). The project, initially launched with 3,600 students at 97 middle and high schools primarily in Miami-Dade County, has expanded to include 10,639 students at 210 schools in 26 states and Puerto Rico. GBE is designed to:
a) Increase middle and high school students’ interest and skills in science by engaging them in authentic citizen science research, and
b) Increase plant diversity for spaceflight by evaluating edible plants that meet NASA’s criteria for size and edibility.
Using equipment that mimics the environmental conditions aboard the International Space Station (ISS), students test factors that may influence plant growth, flavor, and nutrition. Fairchild provides each participating teacher with the necessary equipment (a mini botany lab), materials, detailed research protocols, pre-implementation training, and ongoing implementation support. In addition to collecting and analyzing data, students have the opportunity to engage in other activities such as:
• Interacting with NASA scientists and other GBE students through Twitter, web conferencing, web-based data sharing, and an annual research symposium.
• Designing and conducting their own research studies based on data they collect during each Fall’s Trial 1 research.
GBE results include:
1) Providing useful data that supports NASA’s ongoing space botany research. GBE students have become valuable research partners to NASA by serving as a “feeder program” and “ideas factory” for NASA’s research—testing more than 140 plant varieties and a range of growing conditions. To date, two of the eight plants tested on ISS were initially identified by GBE student research.
2) Engaging students in authentic STEM research. Students investigate research questions for which there is no known answer—not scripted STEM activities.
3) Broadening participation of underrepresented groups. GBE includes a very large, diverse group of students from across the country.
4) Increasing students’ positive attitudes toward botany and science including science interest, science enjoyment, science identity, science career interest, and science career knowledge.
5) Increasing students’ botany and science knowledge and skills particularly in the areas of growing plants, collecting data, planning scientific investigations, constructing explanations as well as reading, evaluating, and communicating scientific information.
6) Illustrating a number of effective strategies for increasing student interest in STEM.
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