Students across different locations communicate with each other using walkie-talkies.

Wearing blue coveralls, clutching walkie-talkies and guided by NASA scientists, Y7–10 students at Oxford Area School are on a mission to Mars.

The ‘Synergies in Space’ missions are part of the school’s ‘Mars Week’ celebration, with different activities planned for each year level. While older students explore mission planning, Y1–4 students learn how to make water-propelled rockets.

Principal Mike Hart says the programme is an immersive experience to help students consolidate learning from their space-focused inquiry topic over the past term.

“It’s going deep into that context, which combines STEM subjects such as biology, geology, mapping and engineering.”

Y7–10 students are divided into groups of 15 and a mission commander nominated by the group. The commander then appoints five astronauts, five mission support and five mission control, with students rotating roles during the week.

Mission theory and planning important 

Before embarking on their missions, students learn about mission planning and discuss a naming convention for each radio, what the mission is and how to be successful on the mission.

Students build a ‘communications relay’ structure to help teams on mars communicate back to Earth.

“Mission control has one walkie-talkie, while the five astronauts have one each, so there’s a real communication challenge and that’s replicating what it would be like – it’s a little bit crackly so you can’t have five people speaking at once to the commander. The commander needs to run the control back in the classroom so they can’t see what’s going on,” says Mike.

“It’s showing the importance of understanding the theory before going off and doing a mission. If on Monday we said ‘go and do a mission’, it could have been unsuccessful, but it’s actually two days of understanding and digging into that knowledge and asking those questions that has set them up to go and do the mission successfully.”

The three missions focus on the areas of engineering, mapping and geology. In the engineering task, students are required to build a ‘communications relay’ structure to help Mars communicate back to Earth. The mapping activity requires students to delineate, survey and map an area. In the geological mission, they need to identify and describe the rocks they find. All three tasks require the astronauts to communicate with the teams in the control room.

New learning experiences

The practical missions offer learning experiences that may not occur in a classroom, says Mike.

Students in mission control work together to provide astronauts in the field with the information they need.

“One group, for example, finished their mission early and were about to come back and one of the NASA scientists said, ‘Well, actually, if you’d spent all of this money to get your astronauts to Mars, would you bring them home early? Or would you ask them to do a couple of extra tasks?’ and so the students on the spot had to think of what else they could do while they were there and gave them a couple of extra missions, so they’re thinking on their feet.”

Students also have the opportunity to connect with the Sydney Powerhouse Museum’s ‘Mars Yard’ to control an imitation rover on a replicated surface of Mars.

“This may not captivate everybody, but students don’t know what they don’t know. This exposure may just make someone think, ‘Well, actually, this is pretty cool. This is something I want to learn more about’,” says Mike.

Along with scientists from NASA’s space programme, Mars Week also brings to the school a former commander of New Zealand forces in Timor, visitors from the University of Hong Kong’s Earth Science Department and members of the New Zealand Astrobiology Network (NZAN).

NZAN Executive Director Haritina Mogosanu was inspired to create the programme following her own participation in replica space missions at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

“You can’t take all these kids to the Mars Desert Research Station, because in the first place that’s a place for adults and for scientists, but what you can do is bring that experience to them and get them to work together in the way that we there in the Mars station were working. I think it teaches them a lot of things but it teaches them responsibilities, that’s why our mission is called ‘Synergies in Space’ because they need to come together and work together as a team,” she says.

“Having a mission that is hands-on, where kids really participate, really work in a team, really contribute, think about it, and collaborate, it’s very different from lecturing them. If you just say ‘Hey, this is Mars, then they go home and forget about it.”

Future availability to schools

Although this is the first time the network is implementing such a programme – with the help of Curious Minds funding – Haritina hopes it will eventually become available to any school in New Zealand.

“What we did here was a pilot to see how it works because we’ve never done it before. Just like the kids are doing their mission, we’re doing our mission, so we say what went wrong, what went well, how can we improve this, what can get better and how can it get better?”

NASA Geological Scientist Dr Jen Blank previously worked as part of the TasMars2013 crew in Utah, with Haritina as her Mission Director. She collated a teacher’s kit of rocks found on both Earth and Mars.

The aim of Mars Week is for students to learn problem-solving and communication skills as well as subject-specific content, says Jen.

“Ultimately they’ll have fun while they’re learning, but it’s actually trying to convey that it’s challenging to go to outer space and to go to Mars. It requires teamwork and a lot of interdisciplinary knowledge. Things that you think would be easy, such as just walking outside, can be very challenging, it makes everything slower and more difficult,” she says.

“Another thing to learn is it’s hard but you get better, even astronauts. I work on the Curiosity Rover team, so we do a lot of practice before we launch to Mars. At first we made lots of mistakes, everything took a lot of time, so just like with anything, you have to practice. We’re hoping these guys will have the chance to practice three activities and hopefully get a lot better.”

Students in mission control work together to provide astronauts in the field with the information they need.

Dispelling misconceptions

Science pervades our everyday lives, says Jen, and she hopes the Mars missions will dispel the misconception that science cannot be fun.

“There are situations where we don’t know the answers, which planets in our solar system might be the best place to look for other life and why. NASA and other space agencies have ideas, but we won’t know until we go, so you never know where the good idea is going to come from,” she says.

“Some kids don’t know that we’ve just sent robots to Mars, we have never sent a person. They’re the right age now to be well suited to be that first class of humans to go to Mars.

“I like to say that the first human that’s going to Mars is in school now.”

Inside outer space

As part of Mars Week, students have the opportunity to experience immersive learning inside a pop-up planetarium.

Videos showing a 180 degree view of the solar system are projected inside the dome, with closer images of the planets providing a more in-depth look at each planet.

What students are saying…

“We watched this clip and it showed you the planets. You went onto the planets and you got to see what the astronauts would have done on them. We saw Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and we saw some of their moons as well. Uranus had the biggest cliff and if you jumped down it with boots on there was no wind to move you round, so you would fall straight down.”

Scarlett Hart, Year 5

“I really liked how it was just like VR but my favourite bit was probably how they showed the sports you could do on Pluto because I’m really into sports. There was rocket-powered skiing and there was this really awesome thing like a motorbike, except with chains. You can ride on it and you can go up really high on the jumps and stuff. I also like how they drive around in the monster truck on the moon to go to their base.”

Mika Tagicakiverata, Year 5

“I liked looking at Venus because we got to see the volcano erupting, it was completely different to a volcano on Earth, it was non-stop erupting and then lots of lava would always pour out.”

Alexis Graham, Year 5

“My favourite part was when they showed the biggest cliff on Uranus. It was really tall and cool. If you jumped off you’d be face first going down real slow because there’s no wind. It was sort of like a wall, but I don’t really think it looked like cliffs on Earth. The planetarium was really cool because it was much bigger and it moved around all over rather than just this rectangle shape [on a tv].”

Mils Wilson, Year 6

Source: Education Gazette

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