AFRL's Mars colonization simulation challenges students

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --

Through programs such as Mission to Mars, the Air Force Research Laboratory is helping students gain new skills and knowledge in a fun learning environment.

Mission to Mars is a Mars colonization simulation that was developed in the 80s by the Challenger Center for Space and Science Education.  It’s a one day activity to give 5th graders the opportunity to use science and math skills outside of the classroom. AFRL, a Kirtland mission partner, now sponsors the event annually.

Students are tasked with writing sagas to describe their journey to mars, studying Mars facts and designing a life support system model.  All of the activities throughout the day are specifically designed to fit into the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum. 

“To do something outside of what’s already required of a teacher is hard, but this is tying it to things that they have to do anyway,” said Ronda Cole, director of STEM outreach for AFRL.

Students design a mission patch, a team uniform and pack a lunch that must meet space nutrition and waste standards.  

“It’s really to try to get students to experience what it is like to be an astronaut, a scientist or an engineer,” Cole said.

Although the day is geared towards STEM curriculum, students also learn and use other skills, such as the importance of teamwork. They work in teams to build a habitat from plastic and duct tape.  The teams are made up of three classes, each class from a different school.  

“They all come from completely different walks of life and different backgrounds, so we have to respect that every background has something different and valuable to offer,” Cole said.

“I’m mostly excited to meet the other team members. We go in with two other teams and they’re going to have different ideas than us, so I’m really excited to see how it will go,” said Lauren Snippen, one of the Mission to Mars participants. 

The activity may have only lasted a few hours, but the lessons the students learned will last a lifetime.  

“They learn that failing and having problems is not the end of the world,” Cole said. “Sticking with some of those hard classes, failing and trying again, maybe those are worthwhile endeavors to pursue.”