Three students from Lamar Academy, who are also part of McAllen ISD’s International Baccalaureate Programme, Sabrina Benitez, Sofia Escobar and Juan Pablo Flanagan, had one interesting question which needed an answer through extensive scientific research.

Guiding these high school junior investigators were advisors Marc Braden, Dr. Anxiu Kuang, Dr. Michael Wayne Persons and the teacher facilitator Laura Nikstad. This project revolved around the photosynthesis process of a plant in outer space comparing the drastic differences between Earth and Mars via tubes that contained tomato seeds, distilled water and soil. Their interest in this scientific project led these students to invest their time, dedication and patience to research how life would work in Mars, which ultimately lead them to having their experiment launched into space via SpaceX Falcon 9 on Saturday, Feb. 18. The launch was recorded from the International Space Station and received attention across the Rio Grande Valley.

Image Credits: McAllen ISD

The proposal summary, which can be found at McAllen ISD’s website, here, is as follows:

“One of NASA’s many current projects, and one the general public has been waiting for ever since we set foot on the Moon, is the human mission to Mars. The recent discovery of liquid water on Mars has increased our anticipation of this dream; however, along with water, it has been found that Martian soil contains high levels of magnesium perchlorate—a contaminant toxic to humans. Analyzing the results of the experiment will provide insight into the effects of perchlorate, combined with microgravity, and how these unfamiliar conditions will affect the possibilities of ever establishing a sustainable colony on Mars. Future manned missions to Mars are in the works and questions about nutrition and sustainability must be answered.”

“This experiment will give us a greater understanding of food growth on Mars, a planet with a significantly smaller amount of gravity than Earth. On the ISS, our Type 3 FME mini-lab will contain Martian simulated soil with tomato seeds and distilled water to catalyze the germination. After twelve days, a solution of 10% Neutral Buffered Formalin will be added to the soil in order to halt the growth and “freeze” any viable data so that we may be able to observe the tomato sprout on Earth and compare the results to the control groups in order to find how plants that have evolved to fit Earth’s conditions will grow and survive in conditions very different from our own.”

Image Credit: SpaceX

The photosynthesis process on Mars was not the only question these students had, they also had to research whether or not consuming plant life was possible or otherwise toxic for human life. Finding a similar soil in order to answer these questions was of high importance, especially one which was similar to the martian planet. They found soil with similar composition in a volcano in Hawaii.

The experiment consisted of five 10 ML tubes which had distilled water, soil brought from the volcano and fixatives. These tubes have three sections, the first section has soil, the center section obtains water and the last section consists of fixative, separated by clamps. One of the tubes will be going to outer space and the rest will remain on Earth. The astronauts would have removed one of the clamps and shaken two of the sections, soil and water, which would have combined them and after the plants had grown, the second clamp would be removed which would mix with the fixative and freeze the growth. The tube would be brought back to earth to study the differences between the four trials on earth and the one in outer space. The reason behind the large amount of controls on earth is to study every angle of the controls and compare them to that of outer space to see the effects the martian planet had on the seeds, such as microgravity.

The inspiration behind this experiment encompasses one of the biggest questions – whether or not humans can sustain life on Mars. The idea is becoming more realistic as time progresses, the students explained during a press conference.

These students’ experiment started back in Fall of 2015 with a 16-page research paper presented to various panels, one being the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. this past summer. This lead the team to be one out of 21 chosen in North America to have the opportunity in the SSEP (Student Spaceflight Experiments Program), spearheaded by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESS), which is a nonprofit organization that inspires next generation scientists and engineers. NCESS gave them the opportunity to launch their experiment in outer space.

There was also a patch competition hosted at Lamar High School where winning patches were sent in a separate rocket launched into space. Once the patches return, they will be studied, providing a unique learning opportunity for students in the Rio Grande Valley. The patch competition was led by Lisa Saenz-Saldivar, lead art teacher at MISD. Mission patch designers were Grace Kelly and Travis Zigler.

Kelly’s Patch Image Credits: SSEP



Travis Zigler’s Patch
Image Credits: SSEP


“It’s been such a pleasure to know them and watch them grow,” said teacher Laura Nikstad during the SSEP Press Conferene. “As their teacher, to work with them for over two years on a project is really amazing. I feel very confident that wherever they go to college, they’re going to continue to do amazing things and really be the change we want to see. I have to say I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I think that in school it’s very easy to be in your own classroom working on this unit on this worksheet, but it’s great to step out of that and to have students work on real-world problems. When I think about what my goals are as a teacher, they’re to prepare students to solve real-world problems and that’s what they’re doing.” The rest of the information from the SSEP Press Conference can be found here.

Image Credits: SpaceX

Once these plants have returned from space, the extensive research will continue from these students. Meanwhile, these scientists patiently wait for the return of their experiment. To watch the launch, you can visit SpaceX’s YouTube page here, or you can also visit the McAllen ISD website where you can watch all angles of the launch.  For more information on this along the rest of the other projects sent to space, you can get a brief summary of each plus the importance behind each here.

It is through amazing teachers like those involved with this project who are helping shape talented individuals already collaborating on real world issues at such young age. It is through endeavors and future discoveries like these that demonstrate the future is here.