The Universe in the Classroom

No. 48 - Fall 1999

© 1999, Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112.

Effecting Global Change

by Stacy Palen
University of Washington, Seattle

"Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It..."
Changing a World
In Hindsight
Web Resources


I was watching a PBS program about John Glenn's 1998 launch on the Space Shuttle when the idea first occurred to me. I realized that this launch meant very little to my Astronomy 101 students, who were not even born the last time we as a species went to the Moon, let alone the first time we went into Earth orbit.

As the program went on to talk about space initiatives and what comes next for NASA, covering topics such as the International Space Station and Mars colonization, I began to realize how common-place some of this must be to my students, nearly all of whom have grown up in the post-Apollo era. An informal poll of them indicated that some think the Space Shuttle goes to the Moon, and that we visit it regularly -- so regularly that it doesn't even make the news!

I was born in 1971. I've never quite gotten over the disappointment of not seeing a man walk on the Moon in "real-time." But things were still happening when I was young. The Space Shuttle was new and tremendously exciting. I recall watching the launches in "homeroom" at school. All of this meant that I knew why I was interested in science. I wanted to go to the Moon, to Mars. I wanted to see Earth from space for myself.
Wandering the Martian plains. In July 1997 the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft landed on the surface of the Red Planet. Soon after its arrival, a small Martian rover named Sojourner left the craft and explored the immediate area. In this image we see Sojourner studying a large rock nicknamed "Yogi", and roughly a kilometer away are the 30-35 meter tall "Twin Peaks" rising above the rock-strewn plain. Part of the Pathfinder spacecraft is visible in the lower left, and tracks leading to Sojourner are clearly visible. Image courtesy of NASA.

Today's students have no reason to wonder about the Space Station. They have no reason to ask why the Shuttle exists. They have no reason to wonder where we are going next. The whole space program is removed from their experience. For many of them, this launch of the Shuttle carrying Glenn was the first of any spacecraft that they knew about ahead of time. Even Mars Pathfinder was unknown to them before it began to actually transmit images, yet that mission was a good start at getting the general public interested in the space program again. I decided to try to give my students another reason to care about science.

I asked them to terraform Mars. Not literally, of course, but on paper. Why this project? It is often said that Mars is the next great frontier. There is an abundance of literature at middle-school and higher levels about the subject. In fact, it is easy to find a great deal of information if you do a web search on, say, "Mars and colonization" (see "A Selection of Web Resources for Student Activities").

The students in my class, like those everywhere, already knew something about Mars and terraforming from popular science fiction books, movies, and TV. Also, the Pathfinder mission had built some momentum. The students were aware of Mars in a way that no other group of students has ever been. They had seen pictures of this place outside of astronomy class -- they knew what the Martian sky looked like, they had heard the sound of Martian winds, they had an almost tactile memory of Mars as a planet, as a place that we have been to visit more than a few times. But mostly, I chose this project because I thought it would be "cool," and therefore likely to attract and keep their attention.


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