Some of Pennsylvania’s middle school students are learning what it’s like to be real scientists with a three-dimensional software program—created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University—that uses recent data from actual NASA exploration missions to Mars and other planets.

“The goal is to make school and science more exciting,” said Peter Coppin, director of EventScope, the software that lets students virtually explore remote places such as Mars from their computers.

Seventh and eighth graders at Northside Urban Pathways, a public charter school in Pittsburgh, are piloting the EventScope program as a supplement to their earth sciences curriculum.

“It’s not a textbook and it’s not an overhead. It’s an actual dynamic computer game-like world, and [teachers and students] seem to be excited about it,” Coppin said.

Using EventScope, students explore another planet through eyes of a robot. “Everything you see is through the eyes of the robot, so you have to control the robot to explore space,” he said.

From the robot’s vantage point, students observe what they see on Mars—including fractures, sand dunes, and craters—looking for signs of erosion or wind. Then, they form their own theories and try to prove them through observation, just like real scientists.

Ken Francis, middle school science teacher at Northside Urban Pathways, said EventScope makes it easier to explain earth science concepts such as the solar system, geology of the earth and Mars, fractures, and erosion. But most importantly, Francis said, students are learning the method of scientific inquiry.

“It gives students a much better idea of how a scientist works,” Francis said, instead of just reading and memorizing from a book. “It sort of puts students in the role of scientists making the best guesses they can.”

Coppin agrees: “Students are right there gathering this information, so it makes them feel like they are really part of this scientific world.”

Although EventScope is a game-like computer program, it is an actual representation of the rocks, valleys, and other landforms on Mars. The images used in EventScope are actual photographs taken by NASA, and they are only a few months old.

“It’s photo-realistic,” Coppin said. “It looks like you are controlling a real robot, but it’s faster.”

By examining these real photos and making observations, students learn what channels, craters, and sand dunes really look like from every angle. Since the images come from NASA, EventScope has the latest information and it’s updated frequently.

“If you have a textbook on this, the pictures are going to be two years old,” Francis said. “[EventScope] pictures were only taken two or three months ago. It keeps it current.”

EventScope is being piloted in three schools in Pennsylvania. Coppin’s plan is to expand the pilot to nine schools in the spring and 36 in the fall. He said EventScope will be out of the research and development stage next year and available to the public in 2001 as a download from the web site.

The EventScope package includes a full-day teacher training workshop and a workbook for teachers designed by EventScope’s education experts in conjunction with area teachers.

Francis said his students are engaged by EventScope. One drawback he mentioned is that EventScope doesn’t offer clear right and wrong answers, because at this time, even NASA scientists aren’t positive about what is really happening on Mars. Francis said his students are used to having definitive answers, and he is used to being able to give them.

EventScope was created by a team of experts from Carnegie Mellon’s Studio for Creative Inquiry in the College of Fine Arts, the Robotics Institute, and the Center for Innovation and Learning, in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Geology and Planetary Science.

Funding for EventScope is being provided by NASA LEARNERS, which stands for Leading Educators to Applications, Research, and NASA-related Educational Resources in Science; the Henry C. Frick Fund of the Buhl Foundation; the Howard Heinz Endowments; Three Rivers Connect; the Grable Foundation; and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Two other Carnegie Mellon research projects that offer web-based remote experiences, Nomad and Arctic Rover, preceded EventScope. Last January, Coppin led a collaborative team in launching the web-based software Big Signal, which allowed students to follow the daily activities of the Carnegie Mellon robot Nomad as it explored and discovered meteorites in Antarctica.

Event Scope

http://www.eventscope.org

Carnegie Mellon University’s Studio for Creative Inquiry

http://www.cmu.edu/studio

Northside Urban Pathways

http://www.pathways.com