The Martian, the novel by Andy Weir that served as the basis for the Matt Damon sci-fi vehicle of the same name, has been lauded for its implementation of realistic, actual science interwoven through its story of a stranded astronaut surviving the harsh conditions of the red planet. Now, students at the University of Wisconsin are putting the story (as personified by the blockbuster movie) to the test by recreating Mars' surface in a greenhouse to see if they can actually cultivate life in like-minded conditions.

Mandy Little and Matt Kutcha, a wife-husband duo who are professors at the University of Wisconsin-Stout (UW-Stout) campus in the school's biology department, are the brains behind the immersive, interactive experiment, which was concocted for a junior-level soil science and conservation course geared toward environmental science majors and Honors College students. 

To create a simulated Martian terra firma, the pair used a dirt lab on the Menomonie campus, which is about 25 miles from Eau Claire, and filled it with roughly 400 pounds of glacial subsoil (an admixture of silt, sand, gravel, and clay), then proceeded to heat it at 1,000 degrees to cook any remaining sustenance out of it. 

The students then applied critical thinking to make their faux red desert bloom—all without the aid of conventional, Earthling gardening methods. (Even adding H2O from a conventional water supply was a tricky business: the cooked greenhouse soil couldn't hold water without the help of an added organic ingredient.)

After failing to replenish the "Martian" dirt with composted soil, which rotted the organic material due to diseases introduced to the soil by the compost, the group then took to good old-fashioned observation from a soil sample devoid of any organic components, and then developed their plan from there.

"It's all about understanding how the system works and being able to make predictions based on how the soil system will respond to various changes," Kuchta said in an interview with

After completing their period of observation, the students imbued the subsoil with Miracle-Gro plant food and packing peanuts to help hold nutrition-inducing matter (like water) with successful results, cultivating a bevy of crops that include beans, rye, potatoes, and parsely.

As for the real ethic behind the experiment, other than cursory curiosity?

"One of the goals for the human race is to explore and view other worlds," said Kutcha.

"It struck me as a perfect theme to help students understand concepts of soil science, and not just rural agriculture," he added. "It's important if we want high yields of corn or soybeans, but understanding the soil system also is important to manage a forest or conserve a prairie habitat."


Photo: European Space Agency | Flickr

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