"Watch out NASA! We're coming!" were the words of a high-school student who recently participated in the Mars Student Imaging Project, jointly sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Arizona State University in Tempe.
The Mars Student Imaging Project allows students from the fifth grade through community college to take their own pictures of Mars using a thermal infrared visible camera system onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is currently circling the red planet.
"The effect we are having on the students and their teachers is our validation," said Mars Student Imaging Project Assistant Director Keith Watt. "We're changing the way teachers teach and students learn in a dynamic, cutting-edge environment, using the exploration of Mars as the hook."
The Formula for Success: Mars Exploration for All
The Mars Student Imaging Project is for everyone, not just for the most motivated students and space-savvy teachers. The project was designed "by teachers, for teachers," so the lessons and activities are easy to implement in the classroom, and reflect the National Science Education Standards for learning. In addition, the project's educational staff has made adaptations for students who speak Spanish or who use sign language. Future plans also include working on activities for visually impaired students.
Students of all backgrounds say they feel like adults or real scientists because they are learning the same skills that professional scientists use on a regular basis. Just as Mars scientists use the camera to map landforms and geologic features on the Martian surface, the students are imaging everything from small, unnamed craters to large and familiar features such as Valles Marineris, the largest canyon system in the solar system. Students watch their image come down from the spacecraft and learn how to analyze data using image-processing techniques. They also get a chance to discuss their preliminary analysis with actual Mars mission scientists.
"The neat part of this project is that the student teams get to make the decision to target whatever site on Mars they feel will best allow them to answer their own scientific questions," said Mars Student Imaging Project Assistant Director Paige Valderrama. "They're working side by side with the scientists, avidly wondering about the geology and climate of another world."
Preparing the Next Generation of Workforce
Many of the students who have been involved in the project are now considering careers in space exploration. Those who weren't motivated at all in school are excited about their studies and almost forget that they are learning. As one student put it, "This is better than school!"
Creators of the Mars Student Imaging Project like to think of it as an example of what school can actually be in this increasingly high-tech age: a chance-of-a-lifetime experience for students to be directly involved with a NASA mission to another planet.
NASA has a vital interest in inspiring the next generation of explorers, and the Mars Student Imaging Project aligns with that intent. With a planned program of multiple orbiters around Mars for the next few decades, the nation's space agency will essentially establish a "permanent presence" for research around Mars. The exciting extension of this orbital presence is that it opens up opportunities for a "permanent presence" in the classroom, open to new groups of students year after year. These opportunities contribute to the education of today's students so that they will be prepared for the high-skill careers of the future.
"By design, the skills required to do these Mars science activities can be applied to many different aspects of life," said Mars Student Imaging Project Director Sheri Klug. "These are core skills, like problem solving and critical thinking, which will academically help them no matter what career paths they end up choosing."
Extending Opportunities to Participate
Perhaps one of the biggest bonuses of the Mars Student Imaging Project is that the student teams are now voluntarily acting as mentors for other interested students. For example, a recent student team of eleven participants went back to their school, reaching out to an additional 100 students. While some student teams decide to come to Arizona State University (often, on their own initiative, holding yard sales and finding corporate sponsors in their communities), others can have the same interactive experience through Internet conferencing and teleconferencing, or with archived data sets available online. That opens the doors for anyone to participate, right from their desktops.
Even the teachers benefit from the experience by learning how to teach what Klug calls an "instead of" curriculum. That is, "instead of" using standard, pre-set classroom worksheets and simulations, the curriculum provides a hands-on, engaging way to participate in genuine planetary exploration and discovery. This participation in real, ongoing scientific discovery-not as bystanders, but as decision-makers-not only boosts students' self-esteem and motivates them to learn, but also gives them a new experience of themselves.
"I wish there was some way to preserve this enthusiasm for learning and pass it on to all students," said Cindy Wurmnest, an Illinois teacher who participated in the project.
Any teacher in the United States can fully participate in the program by downloading the Mars Student Imaging Project curriculum materials from http://msip.asu.edu. More information about NASA's long-term Mars Exploration Program can be found at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov.
Contact: JPL/Charli Schuler (818) 354-3965