Can Students Help Us Get to Mars?

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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This past week, President Obama fired up imaginations and aspirations in his declaration — to get humans not only to Mars but to spend time exploring the planet.

This vision echoes President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration about going to the moon and eloquently emphasized in a 1962 speech:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Insight From an Astronaut

But in the contemporary world, this is a partnership between government and private companies to imagine, create, collaborate and fund this venture. There also is another important partnership — between NASA and other private companies with students.

I remember a conversation with former astronaut and NASA Educator Charles Camarda where he passionately described work he was doing with students to engineer what it would take to colonize Mars.

He is engaged with schools in Finland as well as working in the United States.

Bringing Students Into the Fold

There is such a wealth of resources to get students started in this endeavor, something they can do in real time that is not a hypothetical exercise.

Take a look at Mars Education, a joint enterprise between Arizona University and NASA where middle and high school students work to develop a hypothesis, engage in research, and present their findings to a Mars scientist for feedback.

Another opportunity is with the Mars Imaging project, designed for Grade 5 through high school students where students learn how to use real time data  from the Mars rover to better understand how to use data to find patterns, anomalies, and questions.

Both of these authentic research opportunities are intended to have students be a meaningful part of collaboration, echoing President Obama’s assertion that the present-day students are “the Mars generation.”

One more resource designed for K-12 students — Imagining Mars. This is a collaboration between NASA and the National Endowment of the Arts where students learn about challenging conditions on Mars and then imagine an aspect of what might be possible there. These imaginings can be uploaded to a gallery where there are already 100 examples from classrooms around the country.

The Power of Personalized Learning

So many times, teachers work to find (or manufacture) relevance and talk to their students about how this will be helpful someday when you grow up and become an engineer, rocket scientist, artist, politician, etc.

The power of personalized learning is that students can meaningfully engage in this moment to collaborate to problem solve and create ideas that continue to inspire further investigations because of the rich feedback from experts and sharing their ideas with the world.

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