The Universe in the Classroom

Effecting Global Change

"Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It..."

The night after the John Glenn program, I pitched the terraforming idea to my students. I asked them if they'd like to terraform Mars as a big class project; I wanted to throw the idea to them and see how they would react. Already I had a vision of splitting the class into several groups and having each group take charge of a portion of the project. At the end of the quarter, they would all present their results at a Mars party.

In spite of these early ideas, I was nonetheless shocked by their response to the proposal: they were so excited that they jumped out of their seats. College freshmen, no less! Jumping up in excitement about being asked to do extra work. It was astounding and very gratifying. They couldn't raise their hands fast enough. They were full of questions, comments, and ideas. They wanted to start right away, that night. Students were clamoring for attention from all over the room. I felt as though I'd suddenly been transported to a kindergarten class!

Following my initial idea on how to conduct the project, I split the class into six groups, each student choosing his or her group.

Mars
Mars at its Hubble best. This image, obtained by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, is centered on the dark feature known as Syrtis Major, first seen telescopkically by the astronomer Christiaan Huygens in the 17th century. Many small, dark, circular impact craters can be seen in this region. To the south of Syrtis is a large circular feature called Hellas. Viking spacecraft and, more recently, the Mars Global Surveyor have revealed that Hellas is a large and deep impact crater; HST images further indicate Hellas sometimes fills with surface frost and water ice clouds. Along Mars's right edge, late afternoon clouds have formed around the volcano Elysium. Such interesting planetary activity, and more specifically atmospheric activity, make Mars an interesting world for students (and everyone else, too) to study.

Each group had a little class time each week to meet and work on the project, and the entire project spanned about six weeks. Allowing them to choose which group to join made the multi-disciplinary approach work very well. Surprisingly, most people chose to join one of the true science groups (pre-atmosphere, atmosphere, or infrastructure), where they were asked to learn the most about Mars itself. The society group was the smallest, possibly even understaffed, and the ethics group was a close second.

Due to the spontaneous nature of the project, the assignment was very open-ended. I gave the students very little direction beyond briefly describing the problem and suggesting that a web search might be a good place to start. I made sure to warn them about using references from the web, and mentioned that they should only believe information coming from a place that they trust. For the most part, students are pretty savvy about this — they've seen enough sites with ridiculous claims to censor the web themselves. I made myself available to them during class time each week and often fielded questions about the project before and after class. It didn't take long for their knowledge to far outshine my own, and then they started answering each other's questions. Probably the largest contribution I made to the project was being enthusiastic, interested in the entire thing, and available "on the side" for comments and ideas.

The students became obsessed with the project. Several of them told me that work in their other classes was suffering because they were so fascinated with this topic. Some of the students who had not been paying close attention during lectures began paying attention as the project progressed. It seemed that science and technology became more real and purposeful to them. Of course, it did not capture everyone. Two students complained bitterly about the "extra" work, which was not part of the original syllabus. They did not want to have anything to do with the project. Rather than force them into a group, where they might ruin the experience for everyone, I allowed them to do a more traditional astronomical observing exercise for this portion of their grade. This decision turned out to be correct: they were happier, and the other students did not have to manage less-than-enthusiastic students in their group.

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