Rocketing the next generation into space

Could Tim Peake's mission be responsible for rocketing the next generation to the Moon?
23 June 2016

Interview with 

Alison Kemp, The Perse School


The Apollo landings inspired youngsters to take science subjects, with the hope The Perse School Rocket Seedsthat one day we would see humans living on the Moon. But this never happened after the Space Race was won. However, could there be a light at the end of the tunnel? Could Tim Peake's mission be responsible for rocketing the next generation into space? Graihagh Jackson visited Alison Kemp and her students at the Perse School in Cambridge to see...

Student - Yeah is was quite cool to see someone going into space for six months, I think. To go to the International Space Station for that long has been quite cool.

Graihagh - Would you volunteer to go up in space?

Student - Probably, yes.

Graihagh - It scares me.

Yes, it would probably be quite scary but also quite cool with the anti-gravity, because there would be no gravity and you could just float around. It would be awkward but cool!

Graihagh - This is a student from the Perse School in Cambridge. After Ian's comment, I thought it would be interesting to see if Tim Peake's mission had inspired youngsters to get to the lunar surface. These pupils are apart of Ecology Club, and they got some rocket seeds that were sent up into space with Tim Peake. They were then returned from space and the students grew them to see how microgravity and radiation might have affected them... Here's their Ecology Club teacher, Alison Kemp...

Alison - I'm a biology and a little bit of chemistry teacher her at the Perse. I've been here since September and, prior to that, I was a veterinary surgeon.

Graihagh - Oh wow! Quite a jump then?

Alison - Yes, but a very good one. It's been an absolutely fantastic experience working with all the young people here. They have so many questions and I'm constantly being challenged and thinking about new areas of science that I maybe wasn't before.

Graihagh - Like rocket seeds in space?

Alison - Like rocket seeds in space - exactly. That's not something I'd spent a long time thinking about but, when I saw the experiment was available, we had to do it. It's just such a fantastic opportunity to get the children involved with some real life science. It's something that will matter and something that, hopefully, will capture their imaginations a little bit and make them think.

So basically we got too packets of seeds.

Alison - One red and one blue.

Student - One had been in space with Tim Peake and one was just a normal packet of seeds. What we did, we planted both and we saw if there were any differences between the way they grew.

Student -  We measured a percentage of the seeds which germinated, and how many leaves they had, and the height of them

Alison - The trays were randomised so we put sort of groups of seeds together, we mixed up the red and the blue. They all had the same lighting condition, they all had the same water availability as well, just to try and make it as fair a test as we possibly could do.

And what we did is we then just monitored the seeds. So we watched how long it took them to germinate, we then counted leaves on them, we looked at the height of the seeds, measured all the way up from the soil right up to the top of the shoot, and really just recorded what was happening and tried to spot any differences between the two packets as we went along.

Student -  We didn't think they'd be much of a difference mainly because they're not really doing anything in space, they're just going up into space.

Graihagh - Even with microgravity and radiation and all those sorts of things?

Student - Well, they're still all packaged up and everything so it shouldn't make much of a difference.

Graihagh - I'm looking at the results on the wall and, actually, they're pretty close in terms of percentages.

Alison - They are very, very similar. We found there was a slight difference between our red and our blue seed but not really, hugely significant. Our red seeds tended to get a bit bigger, they're stalks were a bit thinner, and they tended to want to grow upwards towards the sky so I don't know whether that means anything. The blue seeds on the other hand generally stayed a little bit smaller but they were much more even. And the blue seeds - not as many of them made it until the final day of the experiment, so we did lose some of the blue seeds.

Graihagh - So what have you done with the results here?

Alison - We've put them into the RHS's database so they will be combined with results from all the other schools that have participated in the experiment. Obviously there are some employed scientists doing this experiment as well. We're not just leaving it to schools around the country but all the results are going to be combined.  So they will obviously then be analysed and, hopefully, we should end up with some results over the next few months.

We're hoping to find out which packet of seeds went into space this week and so we're all waiting desperately for the email to come through to see whether our predictions were right.

Graihagh - I'd be just hitting refresh on my email constantly!

Alison - I have been doing that quite a lot of times this week. As soon as Tim Peake came back down I've been checking emails daily just to make sure I've not missed anything but, as yet, I'm still waiting to see the result.

Student - I think I would definitely get a career in science after this because I feel like I've got more of an insight into what actually happens in science, and I really enjoyed it.

Student - Maybe, I don't really know but yes, I think it has because I've got a bit more interested in what's actually happening and basically what happened there.

Alison - I think the experiment has just been a fantastic way of engaging the children with true science. Ultimately in school we do an awful lot of practical experiments. We're very, very lucky here but we as teachers know what the results going to be, we can obviously fiddle around with it to try and change things if we need to. This was something something completely new and that was actually really nice for me to be working almost at the same level as the students. We're all experimenting together. It's also a really good opportunity to talk about how we design experiments with them. It really highlights why we do things like randomisation, why we have to be very accurate with the measurements that we take because, obviously all these results are going to mean something and, potentially, could have an impact on whether we choose to grow rocket in space or whether we choose to grow other plants if we ever every eventually manage to settle on other planets.

Student - I think it's always nice to be involved in a big group study like this. You get to add to the community's knowledge like you said. I'm not quite sure how growing rocket seeds would help us live on the moon but...

Graihagh - Well, we need food.

True, true. But I think it's always a great thing to do.

Alison - With many subjects, the way to best engage young people is to get them involved, get them seeing what jobs in that field actually do. I don't think there's any better way of encouraging children into science than actually getting their hands dirty and getting involved.

Student - Well, I think this might contribute to example the MarsOne mission because what we're trying to do here is a one way trip to Mars and then we're going to set up a greenhouse there, which can be built in 6 months.  And we're trying to basically populate Mars, if you can say that and I think this might help because now investigating how seeds would behave in space and whether we could actually grow seeds there, and how this would affect it or whether they're edible after we've grown them there as well. So, I think that's quite interesting and it's going to expand our knowledge.

Student -  Yes, it would be really cool because you would be basically starting a new world and using this experiment and this study, you can ways of growing food. And then, if the world gets too populated, you can move there.

A huge thank you to all the students at the Perse School for their contributions to the programme: Charlie Toff, Isaac Baillie, Henry Butler, Paolo Cicuta, Ella Cowell, Alice MacDowell, Annouska Duggan and Shnithi Yasuthan.


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