The Universe in the Classroom

Effecting Global Change

Changing a World

What did the students learn from all this? For starters, they learned an awful lot about Mars. The University of Washington is on the quarter system, and we usually don't mention the planets at all during the ten weeks of Astronomy 101 (we have another course that deals solely with the planets). The students found this unsatisfactory -- some of them would not be able to fit another astronomy class into their schedules, but they wanted to know about our planetary neighbors, and this project gave them the opportunity to find out without spending valuable class time on the subject.
Giving thought to transforming Mars
Giving thought to transforming Mars. Photos courtesy of the author.

The students also learned to learn for themselves, perhaps one of the most important milestones during formal education. Because the project was so free-form, they were obliged to define the problems on their own: they needed to think about them, ask their own questions, and then try to find the answers, all with no formal guidance. My students really responded to the challenge, and most of them found the general problem of terraforming Mars genuinely interesting and even compelling.

The wealth of information on the topic, both on the World-Wide Web and in the library, made their research straight-forward and fun. There was ample room for creative thinking, for the synthesizing of new ideas. The students seemed to feel that they were making an actual contribution to solving an actual problem.

They also learned to make distinctions between science and science fiction, which is not always easy even for those of us who are a part of the science community! The students learned a great deal about what science is, how scientific endeavor proceeds, and who does it. They even learned how scientific information finds its way into the main stream.

As the project progressed, the students became much more skeptical of the news reports that I would have them read (for other purposes entirely). This led to more questions from them, better involvement in classes, and greater demands of proof that the material I presented in lecture was correct. There were days when I was almost sorry I had started the whole thing!

The last day of the project was a rousing success as the students presented their work to the class. Each group chose its own presentation style. The public relations committee, for example, chose to give speeches, while the pre-atmosphere group gave a PowerPoint-based formal lecture on their topic. The ethics committee summed up the arguments on either side and reasoned their way toward approving the mission. The running joke was that they'd better approve, or the other groups would meet them after class! The students brought food, drinks, balloons and streamers, and made a real event of it. Several of them brought friends from the dorms or from home, and everyone was impressed with the effort of all the groups. The class was patient with groups' various technical difficulties, and with the fact that classtime ran nearly half an hour too long.

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