Teacher Steven Dworetzky’s middle-school classroom buzzed with activity–temporarily converted to a miniature version of the Mars mission control center at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in nearby Pasadena, Calif.
Teams of teens huddled over computers, downloading the latest images from the red planet, while other students assembled and programmed a model of one of the Mars rovers using Lego blocks and other materials.
Along with dozens of other students at Thomas Starr King Middle School, they’re creating a replica of the Martian landscape with their own miniature, camera-equipped rover to explore it.
“It’s fascinating for them to know we’re on a planet millions of miles away,” said Dworetzky, who also is an educational consultant with NASA. “If I open their eyes to all the possibilities, then it’s a good way to keep them in school.”
It is just one of many Mars-related education programs being offered in schools around the world while the real adventure is unfolding.
High school students in the United States and other countries–including Brazil, India, and Poland–are working with NASA engineers at JPL during the mission.
Such educational outreach has always been a major component of NASA missions. But with the goal of determining if life has ever existed on Mars, the current effort is one of the most fascinating and appealing for kids.
“We really want to communicate to students that science is amazingly fun,” said Michelle Viotti, who does education outreach for NASA. “We want to inspire the next generation of explorers.”
President Bush’s announcement this week of plans for future manned missions to the moon and Mars is expected to create even more interest.
“It’s a great time to be a teen, because we may be the first people to explore Mars,” said Courtney Dressing, one of the high school students who has spent the past week shadowing JPL scientists. “If I were given the chance to go to Mars, I would go in a second.”
Dressing, of Alexandria, Va., is one of 16 young people chosen from 500 applicants around the world for a student-astronaut program sponsored by the nonprofit Planetary Society, co-founded in 1980 by astronomer Carl Sagan.
Each week, a different two-student team gets to work with Mars scientists at JPL. Dressing and Rafael Morozowski of Brazil, both 16, were at the lab last week, attending mission briefings and helping with tasks that included logging readings from the Mars rover Spirit’s sundial.
Since the Martian day differs from days on Earth, both had to work late nights.
“I think the easy part is adjusting to the Martian schedule,” Dressing said. “The hard part will be going back to Earth schedule.”
Elsewhere in the United States, 54 student teams are tracking data from the mission for NASA. At Mountainland Applied Technology College in Orem, Utah, high school students enrolled in special multimedia courses are analyzing data from Mars to predict surface temperatures and atmospheric disturbances that could affect the rovers.
Teacher David Black said his students will develop three-dimensional models and topographical maps of Mars. He also wants to put together a CD with information about the planet that can be distributed to other schools or used by NASA.
“I was excited to have an opportunity like this that is normally reserved for people from NASA,” said Isaac Wilson, 17, of Orem. “This project is getting me to think about going to college to get more experience developing software or animation.”
At Geneva Middle School in Geneva, N.Y., teacher Raymond Finney said his students are eager for more news as they prepare to build replica rovers and Martian landscapes next month.
“As soon as all of this stuff popped up on TV, the kids were really talking about it,” Finney said. “Whatever comes from this mission will be the next chapter in the history of Mars exploration.”