By James MacCormick
Space, the final frontier, is more and more filling up with its complementary pioneers. From the moon landings to Voyager, to Mars One and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the field of space travel has never been more active or looked more hopeful. This hushed, anticipatory period, when great forces are mobilizing but have not yet acted, is an excellent time to think creatively about what that rush of future action will actually entail and require. The goal of ‘Engineering Mission to Mars’ is to do just that; to explore, within the framework of physics, engineering, biology, and any other necessary fields, the problems that the pioneers of space will actually meet with when they set off into the void. It is clear, of course, that the ability of anyone other than a specialist to actually plan a Mars mission and engage fully with all the massively complex knowledge that this requires is nonexistent; however, this should not be discouraging, as it is the nature of science that astounding complexity is built up from beautifully elegant and simple basics. Anyone can learn these, and from even such a small lens the whole dazzling vista of the most obscure scientific endeavor can be enjoyed, even if it is not entirely in focus.
This basis of a Mars mission informs the structure of the curriculum. Along the way, students will learn details and fundamentals of a wide variety of scientific fields. The classroom environment is intimate and highly discussion based; it is often difficult to distinguish the instructor(s) from the students, as they simply blend together in conversation. Adding to this free-flowing image is the content of the curriculum, which is mostly composed of applied, hands-on experiments and illustrative activities. As the teacher moves about the room from a supply station to a concept drawn on a board to a table on which is displayed a long-term experiment, students move as well, working on physical projects, observing, and participating in the discussion which never really ceases even after its allotted time.
The lessons and projects range in type and direction from the actual construction of a model to the perusal and discussion of a video. For example, students built models illustrating the principles of heating systems and exploring the most effective way to store heat. To simulate the task of actually designing and building a heating system that would be sent into space, students were given a budget and a list of prices for a wide variety of materials. After watching a few videos, running various experiments, and discussing some rules of heat, they built their models and tested them to find out the most effective method. Other planned modeling activities include the construction of a mars rover, which student Joe says is the project he is most excited about.
In developing the curriculum for this class, Think Tank partnered with Creative Learning Exchange, a non-profit organization with the goal of encouraging “systems-thinking” in education. I had the opportunity to speak with Lees Stunz, a co-founder of CLE who has several times joined us in teaching this class. Essentially, she views knowledge as an iceberg, with the surface, protruding layer being Events, the lower but still shallow layer being Patterns, and the deepest, most important layer being Systems. She believes that the condition of our society and world would be immeasurably improved if everyone took the time to learn and apply the simple methodology which arises from this understanding. I encourage you to check out the CLE’s website and explore some of its ideas. (They develop curricula, which could provide some inspiration to those of you who homeschool).
I was so impressed by the quality of student input in the discussions that I feel compelled to note my personal astonishment in this piece. Their ability to swiftly intuit the nature of the scientific concepts introduced to them and as quickly describe how that knowledge could be practically applied was simply incredible; I would never have believed that students of such a young age were capable of it. It seems that if you give a child the opportunity to interact with ideas on their own terms rather than feeding them both facts and conclusions, the limit of their ability will be no less than the depth of their curiosity, which is bottomless.
Photos: (top) Martian landscape. (right) Students test heat retention between their solar ovens.