SMS students take field trip to Mars |

SMS students take field trip to Mars


SUMMIT COUNTY – Last week, NASA’s Mars rover Spirit approached the red planet’s Columbia Hills in search of rock outcroppings that might contain secrets about the history of water in the region.

At the same time, Summit Middle School’s sixth-graders built, programmed and navigated rovers of their own and tested “Martian samples” for evidence of water.

The students also built landers that would guide their rovers safely to the Martian surface.

“We’re supposed to simulate what would be a great way to land another Mars rover,” said 11-year-old Colin Rada.

“You want to build a design that’s nice and sturdy. It’s fun – you get to see what it’s like to work with rovers.”

Rada and his classmates were among the first students in the country to learn from new curriculum on the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity; the SMS students helped to pilot the program for eventual distribution to other classrooms around the country.

The program, called “Rovers, Rewards, Risks and the Red Planet,” is sponsored by the Keystone Center and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Project coordinators selected 20 teachers from a national pool of about 1,000 applicants to attend a conference on the curriculum at Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility.

Summit Middle School’s Brenda Thompson, Joan Becker and Kay Kirkland were among the 20 who traveled to Tempe, Ariz. in February to learn about the curriculum, offer feedback and subsequently test the program in their own classrooms.

“This is part of a larger project we have on science and public policy,” said Brooke Carson of the Keystone Center.

“As a spinoff, we wanted to do a curriculum on the energy sources the rovers use.

“The kids are investigating the power sources that are economically viable, environmentally responsible and scientifically practical,” Carson added.

Sixth-graders Kaitlin Leach and Isamar Chavez chose solar panels over nuclear power to propel their rover model, constructed with LEGO blocks and a small motor.

“We had to plan all of it and stay inside our weight limit and cost limit,” Leach said.

“We chose solar, because you know the sun’s always going to be there.

“If you were running on other fuel, you could run out and there would be no way of recharging the batteries.”

Each component of the curriculum was designed to challenge students’ problem-solving skills.

“Everything is hands on and completely interactive,” Carson said, as a dozen students sat at computers programming their rovers’ movements.

“The kids have to use critical thinking skills, because there are no right answers. It really challenges them and engages them in a way a text book wouldn’t.

“This is all tied back to what’s happening on Mars. The students are getting information on what the principal investigators are looking for and why,” Carson added.

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203 or

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