The weekly science program, known as Eco-Lab, imitates NASA research being conducted at Rutgers University in New Brunswick to create a life-support system that would enable six astronauts to make a yearlong trek to Mars, live there for a year, and then return to Earth.
Because it is extremely costly to take things into outer space, and because room in the spacecraft would be limited, the astronauts would need to recycle everything. They would need to produce food, oxygen, water and energy during their flight.
The first thing Eco-Lab teaches children is that plants can produce all of those essential elements. Students study plant growth, waste management and recycling, and nutrition and food production.
Each of the four classrooms participating in the pilot program - two at Haviland Avenue and fifth-grade classes at the Forest Hill and Pyne Poynt Schools in Camden - are equipped with a two-tiered Eco-Lab cart on which the students grow a variety of plants, including fruits and vegetables.
The students said some of the most important plants are sunflowers, which rapidly convert dirty water to fresh water that can be harvested and reused; cockscomb, which can remove heavy metals such as mercury from water; and soybeans, which would provide protein for the astronauts.
In addition to growing the plants, students are exploring other problems that are perplexing NASA researchers.
``It costs $10,000 for every pound of stuff you bring to space,'' said 12-year-old Joe Carroll. ``You can't bring big jugs of water [or soil] because it would cost a fortune, so we have to come up with other ways.''
To address this problem, students spent yesterday constructing worm beds. They filled 18-by-12-inch purple storage bins with specific ratios of rocks, shredded newspaper and water; dumped a cup of worms into the mix; added leftover lunch scraps; and closed the lid.
The tiny, slimy red wigglers - a hit with the boys and girls alike - are being used to produce a vermicomposting pile. For people who have not taken an earth-science class in a while, the prefix vermi means ``of worms.''
In the next several weeks, the worms will produce nutrient-rich castings that the students will collect and use as fertilizer to grow more plants. The worms are also valuable because they live off leftover food.
This symbiotic worm-human relationship goes one step further.
``When we're done with them, we'll probably chop them up and eat them,'' said 11-year-old Eric Kempton. ``Worms are a great source of protein.''
Patricia Rowe, the Camden County educator who developed the program at the behest of researchers from the New Jersey NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training (NJ-NSCORT), said the students might not actually eat the worms, but astronauts probably would.
``They're like escargot,'' she said. ``If you put enough garlic and butter on them, you can't even tell.''
Rowe began developing the curriculum in 1996 after the NJ-NSCORT was created. All NASA grants must have an educational component. Most scientists chose to create some sort of university-level research program, but the Rutgers researchers thought children might benefit from a hands-on, experimental science program, Rowe said.
Eco-Lab revolves around experimentation, creative problem-solving and research. Students are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and dig in - literally.
``When we're in the classroom, it's like organized chaos,'' Rowe said. ``At first I was wondering if they were really picking things up, but it seems to be working.''
Once the kinks in the curriculum are ironed out at the three pilot locations, Rowe said, Eco-Lab will be implemented throughout the state. Currently, Rowe and Carlos Nunez, a 1996 graduate of Cook College-Rutgers, teach the program free of charge. Rowe said she would make a profit if the Eco-Lab cart she designed for classrooms was patented.
In the future, the program may also be made available on the Internet so schools across the nation and in other countries can join in the effort to develop a self-contained life-support system.
Wanda Little, the fifth-grade science teacher at Forest Hill, said her students were able to grasp complicated scientific ideas.
``They are able to get the basics,'' she said. ``As they go through grade levels and the concepts are more in-depth, they will be able to reflect on this foundation and get a better understanding.''
Sue Ostberg and Lisa McGilloway, the teachers at Haviland Avenue, said the Eco-Lab program was invaluable because it touched on biology, chemistry, physical science, and math.
``In a normal science class they'd probably be falling asleep, but with Eco-Lab they are taking notes, asking questions,'' Ostberg said. ``They are really learning.''