Mars has captured students’ imaginations for decades. Now modern technology is enabling them to do more than simply daydream about exploring the Red Planet. Through the Mars Student Imaging Project (msip.asu.edu), a joint venture between NASA and Arizona State Univ-ersity, students analyze uncharted territory on Mars’ surface using images from a camera aboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft.
The program, which is available to 5th graders through college sophomores, aims to deepen understanding of the scientific method.
Participants may work either with new or archived images. To receive original pictures, students must submit a scientific proposal and pose a research question, indicating what kind of images they’d need to find the answer. When a proposal is accepted, the Odyssey’s thermal-imaging camera targets the requested site and sends back pictures for study. Students also connect with ASU scientists and NASA researchers through teleconferences, e-mail, and online chats.
Upon completing their analysis, the budding scientists submit reports indicating whether the Mars images support their hypotheses, and the most rigorous reports are published on the program’s Web site. “This is authentic research, totally real-time,” says Paige Valderrama Graff, MSIP’s assistant director.
Teachers who have participated say their students understand the magnitude of the project. “I tell them, ‘They don’t care at NASA if you’re young and you’re cute,’” says Carla-Rae Smith, who teaches an astronomy elective at Jackson Middle School in Champlin, Minnesota. “By not watering it down, [students are] learning how to respond to a real-world situation. They’re acting like young scientists.”
Staffers at Arizona State can help schools make the program work regardless of the technology they’ve got on hand, and there’s no cost to participate. “We’ve got high-tech, low-tech, no-tech options,” says Valderrama Graff.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher