By Brian Mattmiller,

Thousands of elementary and middle school students will try their hand
at rocket horticulture later this month when the Space Shuttle Endeavour
makes its rendezvous with the International Space Station.

The mission STS-100, scheduled for takeoff Thursday, April 19, will carry
a payload of fast-growing mustard plants in a high-tech growth chamber,
the Advanced Astroculture unit developed by the Wisconsin Center for
Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR).

While that project will help demonstrate how plants grow in microgravity,
gravity-bound students in hundreds of U.S. classrooms will follow the
project via the Internet and run parallel studies using similar plant
growth chambers and parameters in class.

“The students will take an active role in designing, preparing, and
conducting the experiment,” says Bratislav Stankovic, a WCSAR scientist
at the College of Engineering. “It will challenge students to do science,
share results online and collaborate on scientific investigations while
being part of a real space project.”

This experiment will be designed by groups of high school students from
more than 400 public schools nationwide.

The STS-100 experiment is sponsored by WCSAR’s commercial partner, Space
Explorers, Inc. SEI is a privately held company based in Green Bay,
Wis., that develops K-12 standards-based commercial education programs
delivered via the Internet.

The science and engineering data obtained from the experiment will be
used by SEI to develop Orbital Laboratory, an Internet-based multi-media
software. The product will allow students and educators to compare ground
plant experiments with space plant experiments, study microgravity
effects on plant growth and to create an environment for students to
design, conduct, and analyze the space experiment on Earth.

WCSAR will provide the engineering and the scientific expertise for
securing a successful plant growth experiment in space, whereas SEI
will develop, market, and service the Orbital Laboratory.

This will be the ninth space shuttle mission on which WCSAR has flown,
but will be the first to test a new larger chamber designed for fully
automated growth of plants, from seed to seed, aboard the International
Space Station.

This first test will examine the growth and development of the plant
Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant in the mustard family that is important to
science because of its short growing cycle and relatively small genome.

By comparing the space station plants with their own earth-bound
plantings, Stankovic says the students will be adding important control
information to the experiment. Most of the participating classrooms
already have their Arabidopsis plantings under way in hydroponic
growth chambers.

WCSAR has been involved in the development of environmentally controlled
technologies for space and terrestrial applications for more than a
decade, and has accumulated a great deal of knowledge, experience, and
know-how in this field.

“Thanks to the NASA Space Product Development and Utilization Division,
WCSAR was financially able to develop the Advanced Astroculture and
provide the flight opportunity to Space Explorers, Inc.,” says Weijia
Zhou, director of WCSAR. “This mission will not only test the
functionality and robustness of the engineering technologies that
WCSAR developed, but also will provide valuable information for us
to refine and develop new technologies for future space-based plant
biotech research platform.”

For more information about the project or participating school, contact
Stankovic, (608) 265-8427, .