Professors use ‘The Martian’ as basis for soil, plant experiments

October 19, 2015
UW-Stout student Molly Beaghan waters plants in the “Hab”

Photo: UW-Stout student Molly Beaghan waters plants in the “Hab”

Barren of plant life with its dusty, ochre soil, Mars looks like a terrible place to grow food.

Moviegoers this fall have seen it done, however, in “The Martian,” the hit movie about an astronaut stranded on Mars. Actor Matt Damon, as the character Mark Watney, grows food in a covered habitat and, implausibly, survives.

But that’s just Hollywood, right?

Two University of Wisconsin-Stout professors and their students are proving that it may be possible in real life to grow plants on Mars in a covered habitat like Damon’s.

Associate professors Matt Kuchta, physics, and Mandy Little, biology, are teaching courses in which they examine extreme soil and growing conditions. They’re doing it using their own Martianlike “Hab,” or habitat.
They collected 400 pounds of glacial till subsoil from Chippewa County and, in batches, cooked it at 1,000 degrees for three hours to decompose all organic material. The lifeless soil turned reddish-orange in color and was dry and dusty, similar to the soil on Mars.

Chippewa County soil was used because it has some properties similar to Martian soil, including iron oxide, similar minerals and texture. “It’s as close as we can get (to Martian soil) in the Midwest,” Kuchta said.

In Kuchta’s dirt lab in Jarvis Hall Science Wing, they’re putting the cooked west-central Wisconsin soil to the test. With various trays under a tabletop plastic dome, they are trying to grow potatoes and other plants in the unfertile soil. Little’s students are doing the same thing in another habitat, the campus greenhouse.

“‘The Martian’ is an excellent way to get students to think about soil as more than just dirt,” Kuchta said.

“Sometimes the best way to learn how something works is to take it apart. What better way to learn about the importance of soil organic matter than to remove it entirely and observe what happens?”

A Martian garden

Like in “The Martian,” the professors and students are succeeding. They’re successfully growing alfalfa sprouts, grasses, beans and potatoes.

“I was not expecting anything to sprout in there,” said Emily Wyland, a sophomore art education major from Hudson, when she observed healthy-looking plants in the odd soil.

How can plants grow in dead soil? The key is to reintroduce organic material and, of course, some water.
“Seed doesn’t need soil to sprout. The roots are just looking for nutrients,” Kuchta said, noting the alfalfa sprouts began sprouting in two days.

The grasses and beans in Kuchta’s class are being used as compost, along with other organic items such as hot sauce — similar to the movie — to enrich the soil and help the potatoes grow.

The first potatoes Kuchta used were from the grocery store. Typically, they have been chemically treated to hinder sprouting. They rotted before they sprouted. Kuchta switched to organic potatoes; they are doing better.
“We unplug the soil from the Earth as a system and add in, piece by piece, elements to see what effect each one has,” Kuchta said. “We’re getting students to think about the connections.”

Kuchta is teaching Soil Science and Conservation for environmental science majors. They are doing technical analysis of the soil.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to teach soil science. Soil science is important in terms of exploring our solar system. You can’t just be a good engineer — you have to be a good botanist too,” Kuchta said. “Technical analysis of the soil illustrates what an environmental science major would do. These skills will be useful down the road.”

Little is teaching Plants and People, a general education Honors College course. Her students are learning “what soils need for healthy plant growth. What does Mars soil provide? What is missing?” she said, echoing the questions being posed to her students.

Little’s students are experimenting with other vegetables to see what grows and how it grows in the soil, in the process also learning experiment design. For their compost, they are trying cellulose packaging peanuts, MiracleGro, worm castings and home food waste.

In the movie, human waste and other organic materials are added to the Martian soil, along with an occasional sprinkle of water.

Students read an excerpt from the book “The Martian” by Andy Weir, on which the movie is based, and many of them have seen the movie.

To learn more about the experiments, read Kuchta’s blog.