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In orbit, on the ground: Westwood Middle’s NASA-winners tour the W.Va. Botanic Garden

For the past several months, a group of students in Lindsay Smalls’ science class at Westwood Middle School have been spending their time looking up – as in, beyond the celestial confines of Earth’s gravitational pull.

In fact, the class just won an innovation award for its work on the Artemis Project, NASA’s goal to put astronauts on Mars by way of the Moon, which will serve as the launch pad.

That means colonizing said lunar orb, first. That means growing crops, so said colonists can eat.

The Westwood students came up with a zero-gravity delivery system to irrigate crops enroute to Earth’s satellite and then in the interstellar greenhouses, once NASA touches down.

On Monday, though, they had their feet collectively planted in the terra firma of the West Virginia Botanic Garden on Tyrone Road.

Smalls rewarded them with a field trip to the 82-acre expanse near Morgantown, which came out of the mind of the late George Longenecker, a pioneering professor of landscape architecture at WVU.

What is now the West Virginia Botanic Garden was the former site of the Tibbs Run Reservoir, which supplied water to the city of Morgantown for decades.

After operations ceased in 1969, the year of Apollo 11, Longenecker began planting some conservation seeds of his own.

With the professor leading the way, a group of kindred eco-spirits waged a successful campaign to save the place from the power saws and bulldozer blades wrought by subdivisions and strip malls.  

The present-day garden now features old-growth hemlocks and oaks, with their branches giving a calligraphy-reach heavenward. There are naturally occurring wetlands and miles of root systems from all those trees.

Smalls called the outing an 82-acre teachable moment, and said she knew her students were going to walk away inspired – and with ideas that will surely apply to outer space.

“I can’t wait to see what they come up with,” she said.