For Over 20 years, Grade 4 Teacher Provides “Out-Of-This-World” Experience for Students

2016-08-29

One student develops a keen interest in space and decides she wants to be a pilot when she grows up…

Another child discovers a love of gardening by tending the tiny plants…

And a 10-year-old boy finds that working with his classmates helps him relate to them…

Don Flaig holding his TomatosphereTM Certificate“Over the years, several of my students really lit up with the Tomatosphere™ experience,” says Don Flaig, a recently retired teacher at St. Patrick Fine Arts Elementary School in Lethbridge, Alberta. “The whole experience was so real for them, so embedded in the present and the real world. Not everything we do in school is like that. It’s good to have a real problem and do real science.”

Flaig has plenty of experience with Tomatosphere™, a free, hands-on program, which gives students in Kindergarten to Grade 12 the opportunity to investigate the effects of the space environment on the growth of tomato seeds.  He heard about the first iteration of the program in 1996 when it was called Canolab and immediately signed up.  “I was attracted to the idea of participating in a nation-wide experiment involving the Canadian Space Agency.  The students were keen about it and the concept of a fair test, which is so important in science classes for young students.  We compared germination rates of space-flown canola seeds and control seeds.  The plants grew to about 50 cm, and it was all very exciting,” Flaig recalls. 

In 2001, Canolab evolved into TomatosphereTM, which uses tomato seeds to teach students the skills and processes of scientific experimentation and inquiry. The consortium of partners who oversee Tomatosphere™ in Canada include the Canadian Space Agency, HeinzSeeds, Let’s Talk Science, Stokes Seeds, and the University of Guelph. Let’s Talk Science joined the consortium and began handling the day-to-day operations of the program in 2014. This year, TomatosphereTM celebrated its 15th anniversary.

tomato-plants-aug-29Since 1996, Flaig never missed an opportunity to use the program with Grade 4 and 5 students.  Every spring, up until his retirement in 2016, he and his students eagerly planted two sets of tomato seeds, not knowing which were in space, were treated (exposed to space like conditions), or untreated until the germination process was complete and the results were submitted.

“I introduced the experiment by telling my students about Mars and how long it would take the astronauts to get there.  We talked about how they would have to grow their own food,” says Flaig. “The students got very excited. The first thing they did each morning was to check to see if their seeds had germinated. Sometimes a student would bring Mom or Dad into the classroom to show them the plants. At the end of the experiment, it was a big deal for them to take a plant home and talk about growing ‘tomatoes from space.’”

Kathy Jones-Husch, Flaig’s principal at St. Patrick also sees the many benefits of the Tomatosphere™ program. “The kids love the activities and would rather do this type of [hands-on] learning,” she says. “They can get their hands ‘dirty’ while there is still snow on the ground and it reduces their feelings that growing things is intimidating.”

Tomatosphere™ is, of course, about science. Flaig used the program to introduce his unit on Plant Growth and Change as well as to reinforce the idea of a fair test and the Scientific Method.   It’s also a wonderful way to teach students about space travel and research in space. A personal highlight for Flaig was the virtual visit he and his students had with Canadian Space Agency astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield.  “We had him to ourselves for half an hour,” he recalls.  “[It was] a special moment.”

But Flaig also enjoyed the way he could weave Tomatosphere™ into many other subjects such as math, health and even art.  “Tomatosphere™ was the tree trunk and branches on which I hung so many concepts from several curricula,” he says.  “The fact that Tomatosphere™ continued for so many years helped me develop my approach and deepen the learning of the students. It is by far the most successful and enduring activity I undertook in my classrooms in my career.”

Tomatosphere registration opens September 2016 at tomatosphere.letstalkscience.ca.