#ProjectMartian: Chapter 2 – COVID19 Course Correction!

By Annalies Corbin and Jim Bruner

It was late March when we first realized there was going to be an issue with our project. During the months of October 2019 through March 2020 plans had been drafted, materials had been purchased, and lesson plans were created for developing content and design challenges with the Spring and Summer STEM Camps and Maker Mania events at the PAST Innovation Lab. The PAST Foundation had prepared the grounds at our headquarters for a season of growth and discovery. The beds were cleared and the hairy vetch( type of clover with robust roots that improves soil texture and health over the winter) had been tilled back into the soil. Seedlings were planted and the hydroponic systems were reset. Then the Governor declared a shelter-in-place emergency in response to COVID-19 and we began to realize that our mission was now radically changed. We adapted and reframed the problem and the opportunity of the project by creating the #ProjectMartian pathway. Because we were under shelter-in-place orders including schools and public gatherings we needed to regroup. There would be no Maker Mania events in the upcoming weeks and we suspected this was going to extend into summer. A few weeks after that shelter-in-place order was imposed we learned that the schools and students would switch to an online learning format and we would not be able to collect the amendments, compost and soil, from Franklin Park Conservatory that were part of the original grant from Scotts Miracle Grow and the City of Columbus.

The Pivot

If you are following this blog then you know that Mezzacello was creating content alongside the gardens at the PAST Foundation. We decided to reframe the issue as one of exploration and ideation. Since we could not immediately use the PAST Innovation Lab (PIL) beds to model advanced gardening and permaculture techniques, we decided to turn them into Soil Production Vessels (AKA compost beds). The gardens at the PIL would become the analog for Mars and Mezzacello would be the Martian test bed for all the research and discovery. In place of the students in Innovators Club, Maker Mania and Summer Student Programs, Jim Bruner and Mezzacello, his “Machine for Life”, would test all of the protocols and design challenges. Everything would be documented and content would be created that could easily be ported to Zoom and the STEMStreaming channel that PAST had created in response to COVID-19.

The gardens at the PAST Innovation Lab would become the analog for Mars and Mezzacello would be the Martian test bed for all of the research and discovery. In place of the students in Innovators Club, Maker Mania and Summer Student Programs, Jim Bruner and Mezzacello, his “Machine for Life”, would test all of the protocols and design challenges.

The Original #ProjectMartian

One of the centerpieces of the pivot was the idea that #ProjectMartian should reframe the issue of dirt and soil. In 2015 when the PAST innovation Lab was under construction the metro Early College High School (MECHS) Design, Energy, Growth, and Bodies Learning Labs created a design challenge in the warehouse space of the southwestern bay of the 32,000 square foot building. It started as a robotics challenge where the Design Learning Lab students would build four rovers designed for Mars. A Martian field was built measuring 9 meters square (81 square meters or 88.5 Yards Squared) and the surface was covered with red lava rock and obstacles for the rover to traverse. One of the features of the “Martian Test Bed” was that the rovers would be lowered into place from the roof. When they touched down, an autonomous command would start them rolling. Then there was a five-minute delay and teams running the rover were located across Kinnear Road in the MECHS building. There were two cameras, one on board the rover and one above. Commands had to be sent to the rover and then teams had to wait 10 minutes for the result. On Mars that delay would actually be 62 minutes long, but we didn’t have that kind of time.

The other three learning labs were enthralled by this project. The idea was floated that we should arrange for the students to see a screening of the film “The Martian” based on the Andy Weir novel of the same name. The students came back from that movie with plenty of great ideas. The Energy Learning Lab students would track and estimate battery and transmission levels and estimate the amount of sunlight and capacity for any solar arrays on the planet. The Growth Learning Lab students would build “greenhouses” that were 39L (20 Gallons) in volume with lids and packed with the essentials for growing food on Mars (dirt, seeds, minerals, fertilizer and water) and the Bodies Learning Lab students would make recommendations for the health and sustainability of nutrients for humans on Mars. After the first week of planning it became OBVIOUS that sending both dirt and water to Mars would be too expensive. Dirt and water are heavy, so allowances were (begrudgingly) made by both the Design and Energy teams to allow for the extra cargo weight. The Growth students “deployed” their greenhouses, planted their seeds and watered them accordingly. The light was carefully balanced to reflect the light that a Martian greenhouse would receive and as an added precaution, Carbon Dioxide was deployed every day (through fire extinguishers) to increase the amount of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere.

It was truly a team effort. Even more remarkably it was entirely student-driven and completely relevant to these young minds. We learned a lot during this experiment. Now was the time to deploy those lessons.

The Key Findings that Influenced #ProjectMartian

After the quarter was over students from all four Learning Labs collaborated and devised a strategy of determining:

  • Which crops had performed best in terms of growth and yield.
  • How many calories could be derived from that harvest.
  • How much energy had been used to maintain and grow the crops.
  • How much water was required.
  • How well the robots had responded.
  • If the system was replicable.
  • What could be modified or improved.

It was truly a team effort. Even more remarkably it was entirely student-driven and completely relevant to these young minds. We learned a lot during this experiment. Now was the time to deploy those lessons. Fast forward to 2020 and Mezzacello was set as the Mars growing beds analog and the five raised beds were covered over with water resistant tarps. Green and brown organic materials from “Earth” were “shipped” from Mezzacello to Mars in 39L bins five at a time (including water) to create beds that by late summer would be ready for planting. We KNEW from experience that shipping dirt or soil would be far too expensive, so instead we pivoted to create soil from lightweight organic matter. A total of 8 cubic meters would be needed to create the critical mass of soil we needed. We set out to find a source for all of that organic matter.

Check back next week for #ProjectMartian: Chapter 3 – The Weight of the Worlds is Dirt or the #Zerodirt #ZeroWaste Beds!


Partners

The Columbus Foundation:

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Scotts Miracle Gro:

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City of Columbus

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Olde Towne East

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