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Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

April 16, 2007

U of G's Tomatosphere Team Wins National Space Award

Move over, space engineers, University of Guelph’s Tomatosphere team has won a prestigious Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) Award normally reserved for aeronautic experts.

The team, led by Prof. Mike Dixon, chair of the Department of Environmental Biology, and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, will be honoured with the 2007 Allouette Award at a ceremony April 25 in Toronto.

The national award is in recognition of the team’s space education project, which allowed students to observe the effects of space travel on the germination of tomato seeds.

“The people who conceived this award were thinking of the engineers who build satellites and robotic arms,” said Dixon. “For a group of educators to get this award is unprecedented.”

Geoff Languedoc, executive director of CASI, agrees that this is a unique situation.

“But this was such a clever experiment that delivered so much and heightened the awareness of space to so many people,” he said. “A broad group of people benefited from this project, and for that, they should be recognized. The Tomatosphere project should be held up as an example to learn from and emulate.”

H.J. Heinz Company of Canada, the Ontario Centres of Excellence, Stokes Seeds, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Space Agency are also part of the Tomatosphere team.

At the beginning of the project in 2000/2001, tomato seeds were sent into space with astronaut Marc Garneau on his 11-day mission on the space shuttle Endeavour. In the following years, seeds were exposed to a variety of environments, including a simulated Martian environment at the NASA-Kennedy Space Centre; a simulated space environment; a simulated Martian greenhouse environment on campus; and the Earth environment, which was the control group. The seeds were then sent out to classrooms across Canada and observed by students in grades 3 to 10.

In Jan. 2004, the team went a step further by sending half a million seeds to the International Space Station for 19 months. The seeds were then delivered to students to compare their germination and growth with that of a controlled group of seeds.

“We use the sexy space angle as a hook, but we are actually teaching kids about science,” Dixon said.

The initial goal of the project was to reach 10,000 students, but that number has skyrocketed to over 250,000 and is still climbing, he said. The team recently registered its 9,000th classroom for this year’s program.

“We were supposed to stop the project this year after we sent the seeds into space because that’s a hard act to follow,” said Dixon. “But when we announced to teachers that we were going to cancel it, they wrote back in the hundreds telling us we can’t because they’ve written it into the curriculum. So now we’re gearing up for another three years.”

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982.

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