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Education & Outreach

Roving for Martian Designs

Designed to build a greenhouse next to a crater on the North Polar Ice Cap and furnish Mars with plants for oxygen and food for future human settlement, the Mars Settler is a self-contained apparatus for roving the surface of the red planet. It is fitted with a camera for Earth-bound researchers to monitor the construction of the greenhouse, as well as a mini-satellite to control heat, light and water sources once the greenhouse is completed.

Students at Windsong Intermediate school in Friendswood, Texas, explain to judges at the Third Annual Mars Rover Competition how their rover the Mars Settler works. The rover, which is designed to build a greenhouse on the red planet to make it inhabitable, won first place in the primary free-form division. Courtesy of Cecilia Nicholas.

But this is not the most recent rover developed by NASA. The Mars Settler was designed and created by fifth-grade students at Windsong Intermediate school in Friendswood, Texas. The miniature rover model, built using nuts, bolts, fabric scraps and any other junk and art supplies that the students could find in their parents’ attics and garages, won first place in the primary free-form division of the Third Annual Mars Rover Competition. The event, sponsored by the University of Houston (UH) and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was held Jan. 22 at the UH campus.

“Our objective here is to provide one of many stimuli to get students interested” in science and engineering, says Edgar Bering, a physics professor at UH and chair of the competition. “To these kids, being an engineer is like being a martian. We have to excite them about engineering and science at a young age.”

Hundreds of third- through eighth-grade students entered their diorama-sized rovers into various categories. Some, like the Mars Settler, were blueprints for specialized designs. Others actually could rove about, either via remote control or solar power. All of the rover-building teams needed a mission statement of how they would carry out specific goals under martian conditions, whether atmospheric or morphologic. The competition is one of many extracurricular activities developed throughout the country to get kids excited about science.

“I was not even encouraged to enjoy science,” says Cecilia Nicholas, the gifted and talented student coordinator at Windsong Intermediate and organizer for Windsong’s nine competing teams. “People ask me, how can you get into that?” She says she just likes “to know how things work.”

And knowing how things work is what the rover project is all about. Each team had specific guidelines to follow, and all were required to develop their rovers as if they were actual scientists. Nicholas’ students even had “rover journals,” in which every student was required to keep a log of the dates, ideas and activities associated with the project. Like scientists, the students were supposed to also use their journals to record their mistakes and unused data. “A true scientist keeps records of everything they do,” Nicholas says. “It gave them a real picture of what a scientist actually does.”

The competition also taught students important communications skills. In much the way science fairs work, the participating students presented their rovers, complete with demonstrations and posters detailing their work, along with a skit about the mission.

Finding new ways to get kids interested in science and math is becoming more important as educational standards are being raised, and fewer students are going into science and engineering college programs, educators say. According to a 1999 survey by the National Science Foundation’s Science Resources Statistics Division, only 1.4 percent of college graduates held a degree (bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates included) in the geosciences, with approximately the same percentage earning degrees in physics or astronomy programs.

In that same year, the Science and Math Indicators Projects, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers, reported that elementary school children in first through third grade were receiving, on average, 2.5 hours of science instruction and 5.6 hours of math instruction per week, while English was given an average of 11 hours per week. In fourth through sixth grade, the subjects were more balanced, with 3 hours of science teaching and 5.8 hours of math, compared to 9.6 hours of English.

Those people trying to build enrollment in college-level programs must focus on third through fifth grade, Bering says. That way, “kids will be prepared when they get to high school, to be ahead of the game, and be sure that they will be able to meet the requirements” to get into science undergraduate majors.

Targeting kids early through science fairs and other such activities is becoming more common, with many state and local school districts now hosting local science fairs and events. For those students who have the time and funding, there are international programs as well, such as the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (see Geotimes, August 2004).

Science competitions provide “an enticement for [the students] to continue to pursue their curiosity, interest and abilities in the area of science,” says Shirley Briggs, director of the Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair, one of four regional events in Arizona. The events also can help build enthusiasm and self-confidence in students to pursue their interests in these fields.

After her Mars rover presentation, one of Nicholas’ students was told by a judge that she should work for NASA, and now, “she has it all planned out to be a NASA scientist,” Nicholas says. “And she’s got the right attitude — the I-can-succeed attitude.”

Bering says that the project supporters “aren’t necessarily looking for someone good at building a Mars rover — it doesn’t take a ‘good’ student.” The point of the programs is not to identify kids who do well at science and math, but rather to show them the possibilities that exist. Being an engineer or scientist is “something that doesn’t even occur to them until they participate in something like this.”

Back in Texas, the students at Windsong Intermediate are enjoying their success and showing off their trophies. And although the students’ design, to use the Mars Settler to make Mars inhabitable to humans by using a greenhouse, may sound like a child’s fantasy, an article in the February Journal of Geophysical Research — Planets suggests “terraforming” Mars, by injecting super-greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to warm Mars’ frozen land and sustain biological life.

Laura Stafford


"Best in Show," Geotimes, August 2004

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