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Why do scientists love science fiction? What does sautéed spinach have to do with space farming? What does the future hold for agriculture? Over the coming months, we will publish a series of guest thoughts and commentaries that answer these questions and many more about space, the future of food and space farming. If you would like to contribute a commentary, please get in touch with our space farming team using the contact link above. Enjoy reading!

January 23, 2017 - Brigitte Schuermann is the schoolteacher behind the V3PO project. As the team gets ready for the rocket launch to the ISS, she talks about the highs and lows of the past two years.

V3PO stands for Vegetative Propagation of Plants in Orbit

Or to put it simply: “Can plants cuttings build roots in space?”. Maria Koch, David Geray und Raphael Schilling are pursuing a visionary quest to answer this question and, maybe as a result, astronauts on long missions in the future will be able to eat fresh vegetables. As leader of the V3PO project, I am very proud that we have managed to get our experiment onto the ISS and that we have also achieved such broad recognition for our idea and our project.

 

For many years, I have been running an after-school science club for pupils from the Edith Stein School in Ravensburg, with the goal of participating in "Jugend forscht", Germany's annual Young Scientists competition. Our pupils are attending a vocational high school with a focus on natural sciences, and in the classroom we often conduct experiments with predetermined methods. We do not usually have time to develop and implement our own experimental hypotheses and procedures. I feel it is particularly valuable to help interested pupils acquire a deeper understanding of nature, science and research. Only those who understand nature, can protect it. It is also always a new challenge for me, to set aside my normal role as a teacher, and to work together with the students to develop an idea, find solutions and put them into practice. I am able to challenge the students and at the same time, I can nurture their talent. I have always considered it important to use simple tools to do good scientifically precise research.

 

The V3PO project has a very special meaning for me personally. As a gardener and horticultural scientist, plant propagation and growth are two of my main topics. I am fascinated by the question, “What do I have to do to grow a new plant from a piece of another plant i.e. from a cutting?” Even more exciting is the question of how a cutting behaves in micro-gravity. As soon as I heard about the opportunity to conduct an experiment on the ISS, I knew immediately that it had to be about the ability of plants to propagate.

 

To find a school team for this quest was easy, but carrying out the project was extremely challenging: Alongside the research work, we had to raise €40,000 – a difficult and unfamiliar task for a school. But thanks to the perseverance and stamina of our team and wide-ranging support, we did it. We finally reached our goal! We are the first German school team to be accepted onto NASA’s educational program. We have financed the entire project and through crowdfunding, we raised over €40,000. The team really went the extra mile – they wrote countless sponsorship letters, conducted interviews on the radio and in the press, made films (they were even on the south-west regional TV news) and got involved in many fundraising activities. We were able to interest BASF in the idea and get technical and financial support from them. As a result of the innovative focus of the experiment, the German National Space Agency also became a financial partner to the project. This is how we were able to ensure that the cuttings really will be sent to the ISS.

 

Through their research and many experimental trials, our three young scientists have designed an experiment, not for planet Earth, but for the International Space Station. For their visionary study, they won the local heats of Germany’s Young Scientists competition 2016 held in Friedrichshafen, taking first prize in the Biology category. At the regional heats in Stuttgart, they won second prize!

 

Nevertheless, without the help of Christian Bruderreck, we definitely would not have come so far! Christian is project manager for life science experiments in space at Airbus and he took over the entire technical organisation and coordination required for the mission. He invested a great deal of his free time and not only looked after the technical aspects, but also managed contact with the sponsors, kept us motivated, organised meetings and inspired us to keep going with his tremendous optimism. He has been supported by two engineering colleagues, Maria Birlem and Constantin Winter. I would like to give my personal and sincere thanks to all the supporters that have enabled us to be the first German school to conduct such an experiment.

 

Of course, until astronauts in micro-gravity can enjoy a diet with fresh vegetables, it will be a long journey. and in this respect, the V3PO experiment can only be seen as basic research. But now we are looking forward to planting our cuttings in the experiment container at the Cape Canaveral laboratories, and, hopefully in February 2017, we will be cheering when the transport rocket SpaceX lifts off to take our experiment to the ISS. Until then, the fascinating question remains unanswered: “Can plants cuttings build roots in space and how do they grow?”.

 

About the author

Brigitte Schuermann has been a teacher at the Edith-Stein School since 1995. After training to be a gardener, she studied agricultural sciences and horticulture at Hannover University. She teaches agricultural biology, biotechnology, biology and technical studies. In addition, she is department head with responsibility for the vocational high schools in Ravensburg.  

Since 2007, Brigitte Schuermann has entered nine school teams in the biology category for "Jugend forscht" Germany’s Young Scientists competition. Of these nine projects, six have won the local heats, one team took first place and two teams won second place in the regional finals and, in 2012, one project reached fifth place in the German national finals. In 2015, the "Jugend forscht" organizers awarded Brigitte Schuermann an honorary prize for her commitment to encouraging new talent.

Learn more about the Edith-Stein School, Ravensburg (in German)

Learn more about "Jugend forscht" Germany’s Young Scientists competition (in German)