The Universe in the Classroom

Effecting Global Change

In Hindsight

During and after the project, the student response was tremendous. They really loved it. They felt challenged, interested, compelled to find out more. Many of them said to me afterwards, "You should do this again!" Several of them keep in touch with me about bits and pieces of Mars information that they run into. I am afraid that some of them may be fixated!

I invite you to view what the class did with the terraforming project. All the work there was done by the students - from the website itself, to the artwork, to the content. For some of the groups, I had a hand in converting the work to HTML. For example, the PowerPoint presentation of the pre-atmosphere group required substantial reformatting. These pages contain only portions of the entire project, since some of the presentations were purely verbal, and I was remiss in collecting all the speeches.

student website
The Mars Project student website

Of course, if I were to do it all again or if you decide to try this with your own class, there are a few things I would change.

I think that it can be stressful to students to have such a large project to work on when they don't know what it's worth to them. This was something of a problem for me, too, but again, the project idea came to me during the term. This difficulty can be avoided by planning on such a project from the beginning of the term (or school year, if you teach at the primary or secondary levels).

On the one hand, having the final product so open-ended made it difficult to assemble the different group projects into a seamless whole. It would be better to have them all write a paper or, say, construct a web page. On the other hand, some of the speeches were really great, and it would be a shame to lose them. I would definitely have the presentations span two class periods, rather than just one, to avoid the class running overtime.

I don't think I would want to do the same project each term. Much of what made this project so successful was the timing -- just after the Mars Pathfinder mission, when Mars was foremost in people's minds. However, this opportunity should continue for several years at least, as NASA has ongoing and upcoming Mars missions (and others to other worlds!).

I was a little frightened the first day that I pitched the idea to my students. I didn't know what was going to happen, and I didn't know if they would respond with enthusiasm or with the typical freshman stare. I was most afraid that an initial enthusiastic response would not carry through to the end of the project. But the students made it work. They were enthusiastic, excited, and involved from the first day to the last.

My experience with grade schools is limited to brief one-day visits, but I think this project would be appropriate for anyone from fourth or fifth grade to college-level. The free-form nature of the project lets students participate to the level of their ability to understand. I would expect that fourth and fifth graders would need a more focused assignment, in order to keep them "on task." I can imagine adapting the project to include an art project (building models of spacecraft and housing on Mars), or to include some mathematics practice (scaling, distance and angular size, etc.), or to exercise language skills (writing speeches or reports). The project is really about building enthusiasm, and the freedom to choose a presentation style makes it highly adaptable.

I was completely impressed with my students' initiative and with the amount of information they managed to pack into their heads in a relatively short period of time. It was like watching 7-year-olds learn about dinosaurs. I think the project may have inspired some of them for the rest of their lives to be curious, and attentive to science, the space program, and astronomy. Perhaps the best way to describe it is in the words of one of the students themselves, as submitted in an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the quarter:

"[The Mars project] provided us with the opportunity to take learning into our own hands and direct the class where we wanted to go."

Stacy Palen is an astronomer at the University of Washington in Seattle. In spite of the rain and the extremely short winter days, she spends lots of time outdoors, riding and training 3-day event horses or backpacking. She may be reached via email at palen@astro.washington.edu.

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