They don't have white lab coats, and they're not rocket scientists. Not one holds an advanced degree. In fact, they don't even have high school diplomas.
But none of that is stopping the fourth-graders in Jason Daniels' class from working for NASA.
The Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School students are participating in an eight-week program called Payload III, growing plants and collecting data to help the agency find a sustainable food source for human missions throughout the solar system.
"The main point, as far as the real mission, is to find the perfect space crop for long-distance missions to Mars or other areas," Daniels said Monday afternoon.
Along the way, the students also get hands-on lessons in botany, the metric system, data collection, teamwork and computer skills.
Space, Daniels said, is a common science subject for elementary students.
"It's a natural field kids love to learn more about," he said. "Every year I try to think of something space-related to do (with my class)."
In the past, Daniels has done a number of space-related projects, including moon mission and rendezvous with an astronaut programs. But the plant-growing project is the most complex he has tried thus far.
Students' experiments sit in a heat- and light-controlled growth chamber
"This is the most complicated, as far as the skills required by the students," he said. "Third-graders couldn't handle it, but (my students) are doing OK."
The students work in teams of two or three, growing both wheat and soy bean plants from seeds in three different types of soil. The plants are housed in a "growth chamber" a cardboard box decorated with student drawings of space shuttles and equipped with a Celsius thermometer and heat lamp and kept under controlled light and heat conditions. Each day, the students observe their plants, tracking their growth through the plant life cycle.
About once each week, the class logs onto a special Web site to submit the data to NASA scientists.
The data will be compared to that collected by astronauts who did the same experiments in zero-gravity conditions in the international space station last year.
The students said they enjoyed learning about plants and watching them grow.
"We get to go every day to look at the leaves. Some are dying, some are staying alive. Some leaves are getting brown. On some, the bottoms are brown and the tops green," said fourth-grader Jacob Janoski, as he explained the progress of the project. "I like seeing which grows better."
"I like that we get to plant things," agreed fourth-grader Hunter Williams.
But even more than the plants themselves, the students and Daniels said they like the broader scope of the project.
"I love space, I love studying space," Daniels said. "I wanted to pass that enthusiasm on to the kids."
It's a passion that can be difficult at times, he admitted. The students in his class were following the Columbia shuttle on its last mission, checking the progress daily on the Web, he said. The tragic explosion of the shuttle earlier this year was a blow for the students.
"It hit some of them hard," he said.
But, he added, it also provided a valuable lesson: "There are risks in achieving these things," Daniels said.
And the tragedy doesn't seem to have curbed the students' enthusiasm for space-related lessons.
"I like that we get to communicate with the astronauts up in space," said Sasha Nery, tucking a new soybean seed into a carton of soil. "We get to ask them questions on a certain Web site."
Kelly Gilliland agreed.
"I like (the project) because they're doing the same thing in space."
For more information on the NASA-classroom project, visit
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