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2012 NSERC Awards for Science Promotion

Thomas Keenan

Finding easy, relatable and relevant ways to explain complex issues is an ongoing challenge, given the ever-expanding world of science and technology.

The recipient of a 2012 NSERC Award for Science Promotion, University of Calgary professor Thomas (Tom) Keenan has inspired and informed his students, colleagues and the public to care deeply about science and to ask probing questions.

Keenan has promoted science and technology to Canadians of all ages as a professor, professional speaker, broadcaster and technology journalist through regular columns in newspapers and magazines, as well as radio and television appearances. Through clear and entertaining explanations of issues involving computer security, the social implications of technology, and the use of technology in education, Keenan has helped people understand complex issues and how their lives and society may be affected.

Touted by his students as a “cool professor,” Keenan’s passion for teaching science led to him becoming a founding program director of Shad Valley Calgary. For 24 years (1984-2008), he provided promising high school students hands-on learning experiences related to science. His work has encouraged countless young Canadians to pursue a life and career in science and technology.

Tomatosphere Project

Keeping young people engaged and excited about science can be a challenging task. Tomatosphere—a hands-on science project where kids from across the country experiment with tomato seeds that were once in space—has inspired over two million students since it began.

The recipient of a 2012 NSERC Award for Science Promotion, the Tomatosphere Project has informed and inspired students to see the relevance of science, not only in the classroom, but in and out of this world.

Over a decade ago, Canadian Astronaut Robert Thirsk, University of Guelph researcher Michael Dixon and Toronto District School Board consultant Ronald Thorpe got together to discuss how science related to space education could be enhanced across Canada. Tomatosphere was the fruit of their labour.

The project was first implemented in 2001, using seeds taken into space by Canadian Astronaut Marc Garneau. For its second year, Tomatosphere received an NSERC PromoScience Grant and students continued to grow tomatoes to help Canadian scientists understand some of the issues related to space travel and farming. What are the life support systems needed to grow food like tomatoes in space or on other planets?

Every year since, students receive two different groups of tomato seeds and compare their growth rates to learn what elements are required for space missions—food, water, oxygen, and a way to use carbon dioxide. The identification of the seeds (those brought to space or exposed to a simulated space environment, and those that were not) are not revealed until results from the experiment are submitted to the This link will take you to another Web site Tomatosphere Project Web site. Eleven years later, these research results continue to help Canadian scientists understand the challenges of agriculture in space and the effects of space travel on biological systems.