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Buffalo students launching spud into space with NASA

Three Buffalo middle school students have posed an intriguing question that’s getting attention in the most prominent scientific circles: Can potatoes grow in space?

The students will get the chance to find out – with NASA’s help.

The pupils from Hamlin Park School 74 – Gabriella Melendez, Toriana Cornwell and Shaniylah Welch – recently won a competition to send their science experiment into space. It will be launched to the International Space Station next year.

Their project, “Tuber Growth in Microgravity,” will test whether a potato can sprout in a small tube inside the orbiting laboratory and survive the return to Earth for planting – a particular area of interest these days for NASA.

Not only was this a big win for these three “Spud Launchers” – as the girls call themselves – but also for Hamlin Park School, where academic accolades are few and far between.

And in a way, this was a small victory for the field of science, which is desperately trying to spark more interest among the next generation, particularly among girls and minorities, like Gabriella, Toriana and Shaniylah.

“I’m so proud of them and the dedication they put into this,” said Hamlin Park teacher Andrew Franz, their adviser for the project.

“Just the curiosity that they brought to this,” Franz said. “I, quite frankly, kind of know what I’m doing from stuff I’ve read recently, but they’ve pushed me to learn more.”

The competition is part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education, which partners with NASA and NanoRacks, a leader in the commercial space industry.

Since 2010, the education center has tried to inspire students nationwide by offering the opportunity to send to the International Space Station their microgravity projects – experiments tied to the appearance of weightlessness.

A winner is selected from each of the 21 participating communities across the United States – one of which is the Buffalo Niagara region.

Locally, the competition is coordinated by WNY STEM Hub, a nonprofit created to steer students toward the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The nonprofit – which has a special interest in high-needs urban schools – organized a coalition of 10 schools from Buffalo, Lackawanna and Niagara Falls to come up with proposals for the contest.

More than 300 students took up the challenge.

At Hamlin Park, Gabriella was inspired by the “The Martian,” a science-fiction movie about an astronaut who is left behind on Mars and learns how to grow potatoes to stay alive.

Could potatoes grow in space? she wondered.

“I saw the movie, and I just got so interested,” said Gabriella, 12. “It might sound simple, but it’s a start.”

For a month and a half, she and her co-investigators, Toriana and Shaniylah, stayed after school two hours a day, four days a week researching. The reached out for help to scientists in the field and wrote a 14-page paper on their potato proposal.

In the end, the girls used a short, half-inch tube – clamped in the middle – to hold Miracle-Gro solution on one end; on the other end, a small piece of foam holding in place a bored sample. Astronauts at the International Space Station simply have to unclasp and shake the tube in hopes the potato sprouts roots and leaves.

Franz likened it to the old bean and paper towel experiment conducted by kids in elementary school.

“This simple little tube doesn’t take up a lot of space,” said Franz, holding the tube between two fingers. “It’s pretty easy to operate, and this could be a vehicle used to send it to another planet – eventually.”

The field of local contestants was narrowed and the project proposals were sent to a national panel for judging.

Experiments submitted by Global Concepts Charter High School in Lackawanna and Harry Abate Elementary School in Niagara Falls were finalists. Honorable mentions went to Community School 53 on Roehrer Avenue; Niagara Falls High School; Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School on Franklin Street and Gaskill Preparatory School in Niagara Falls.

But Hamlin Park’s potato project won the right to be sent into orbit.

“Hard work pays off,” said Shaniylah, 13.

Did they learn anything else?

“I learned more about potatoes,” said Toriana, 13.

The credit for Hamlin Park’s victory has to be shared.

WNY STEM Hub and its partners came up with the thousands of dollars required for the competition fee.

“If we can inspire kids as young as these kids are to understand the capacity they have, imagine what our future workforce will be in Western New York,” said Michelle Kavanaugh, executive director of the organization.

School stakeholders, like Ina Ferguson, Don Hill and School Board Member Sharon Belton-Cottman, were instrumental in getting WNY STEM Hub involved with Hamlin Park.

More than 90 percent of the students at the school are minority and 84 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. Only 4 percent of the school’s eighth-graders were proficient in science last year, compared to 36 percent districtwide, according to state test scores.

“I want everyone to see we have diamonds in the rough,” said Hill, president of the Hamlin Park Taxpayers Association. “Just give them a chance and see what they can do.”

“This is what education should be about,” Belton-Cottman said.

In fact, Hamlin Park’s victory has inspired aspirations of better things to come.

“These girls are the trailblazers,” said Ferguson, a liaison for WNY STEM Hub, “but we want more to follow.”

“What my goal would be is to grow STEM at Hamlin Park and grow it so much that somebody’s going to want to come in here and build a state-of-the-art science lab,” said Principal Elizabeth Giangreco. “We are just as entitled as anybody else to have it for our students.”

For now, the Spud Launchers continue dry runs and consult with experts at the University at Buffalo and Cornell Cooperative Extension to make sure their project is ready to orbit sometime in the spring or summer.

They only have one shot at this.

The goal would be to have the potato sprout in the tube, so when it’s returned to them after the space trip the students can plant it inside a UB greenhouse. That would help them determine if microgravity had any effect on its ability to grow, Franz said.

NASA, in fact, has been cultivating this ability to grow food in space in preparation for longer space missions. In August, astronauts aboard the International Space Station sampled the first food grown and consumed in space – red romaine lettuce.

Coincidentally, NASA recently announced a partnership with a research center in Peru to grow potatoes in Mars-like conditions on Earth with hopes of one day planting the crop in a controlled dome on the Red Planet.

Franz wondered if NASA heard about the potato project at Hamlin Park.

“If people didn’t hear of us before, I think after January they’re definitely going to be talking about us,” Franz said.