Astrobotany and the Future of Science Education

The world is changing fast and scientific research is accelerating at lightning pace. The dawn of cloud computing, massive data networks and bioinformatics is bringing together scientists from all around the world to participate in a new era of technology. Entire genomes are free and available at the click of a button. New engineering developments, like 3-D printing, offer solutions to lab problems that previously would have taken years to address. Science has never been easier to access.

What does this rapid change mean for science education? Clearly it must adapt as well, and educators are fully aware of this. The multi-state Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) seeks to create standards “rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education.”

Inquiry based learning and case study investigations are a core component of NGSS. It’s promising to hear that students will be able to lead their own experiments. What’s even more promising is access to new tools for students to make their work as meaningful as possible.

So what does this all have to do with astrobotany?

New scientific disciplines emerge and define themselves as technology advances. Molecular biology as a field of study has only really existed from the early 1960s onward. The discovery of DNA laid the foundations of molecular biology and early work provided its “central dogma” of DNA to RNA to protein.

Astrobotany was only a dream in the 20th century. But that dream is now becoming a reality as plant experiments are launched in hopes that we can build our first bioregenerative life support system. Spaceflight plant biology or “astrobotany” is beginning to define itself as a field. I have the great privilege of being very close to the heart of this science.

We would be remiss to not seize the opportunity that has been presented. For thousands of years, scientific work has been performed by only the most talented and most fortunate individuals. That doesn’t have to be the case any longer. Science researchers and educators must work together to provide systems that directly allow students to perform meaningful research. The field doesn’t matter, and astrobotany provides a great testing ground. Currently, framework is being put in place which will allow students to perform spaceflight and botany related experiments that yield real data. It’s an incredible concept.

The future of science education is real, inquiry based research performed by real students who will provide real data for a very real field: plants in space.

Now, more than ever, we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Kai Rasmussen is an undergraduate researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and webmaster of 

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