It is hard to perceive a revolution while in the midst of it. We are experiencing a new frontier of amazing intellectual vigor. Can we see it happening? Look around at what people do. Observe their attitudes. We have all internalized a new concept of the quality of human activity. In the Nineteenth Century, people would have said they preferred to wash dishes by hand rather than by machine so they knew they were really clean. They would rather hang clothes to dry so they could monitor dryness rather than have a machine dry clothes. We now accept the idea that machines are able to do tasks better than humans are. Remotely sensing the dryness of clothes is simply taken for granted. It is such a fundamentally assumed part of our life that it never enters our conversation. Telephone communication via satellite, cable TV, and world wide computer networks are increasingly taken for granted today.
It would appear that the "New Frontier" is the frontier of the cleverness of the human mind to construct mechanical devices to perform functions better than frail human bodies can. It is the frontier of the robot. It is the frontier of remote sensing.
Today we can unite the economic energies of diverse nations to "cleverly" explore a new world together. This new remote frontier can serve the restless energy of the human spirit. Creative talent is being unleashed in today's novel electronic frontier, and new and invaluable roles are being created for everyone who is interested.
Still, the Earth is round, and it is hard to comprehend individuals who experience the other side of it. Mars can provide a remote site for all Earthlings to view as an intellectual target. The vision of applying our cleverness to the exploration of Mars can unite us all as we create a new and open intellectual society driven by innovation and a need to maximize understanding of the physical properties of the solar system.
What does this imply for education? The electronic frontier provides a strong incentive for improvement of public education. Today, we find schools primarily using it as an alternative medium for reading and writing. We see the old mindset using a keyboard rather than a pencil. There is little awareness of the immense scientific and technological breakthroughs which electronic devices portend. Practical education must put a premium on understanding the physical universe in a way to enhance the possibility of individuals making real breakthroughs which will advance the human condition.
The past decades have shown a decline in student understanding of the physical world. Many of our students take science courses focused on a reverence for Earth and the environment by emphasizing political action more than deep conceptual understanding. The exploration of Mars provides an opportunity to receive new physical data, grapple with improved understandings, and establish extraterrestrial public policy based on these deeper understandings.
These assumptions provide an organizing view of what Mars Exploration Education will encompass. The steps in crafting lessons must be deliberate and thoughtful and suited to the intellectual constructs of each child in the class. This means that we need to assess student conceptualization of forces and motion before we give them terms to simply overlay and memorize.
There is well-founded speculation in the scientific community that Mars has water. Some think that there is enough water in the permafrost to cover the entire planet in an ocean several hundred meters deep. We need to engage student thinking about why it is in the soil rather than on the surface. We need to ask seemingly unrelated questions such as "Why do farmers plow fallow fields?" Students need the creative opportunity to generalize their experimental work to understanding pore size and capillarity in soil - and how increasing pore size conserves water in arid regions. They need to discover that plowing keeps the water deep in the soil and prevents it rising to the surface by capillary action to be evaporated away. Students need to consider what would happen to the postulated ocean on Mars if we could transport it to the surface - given the sparse and low-pressure atmosphere. We need to find out how students conceptualize atmospheric pressure and how they generalize the forces involved. Once conceptions and misconceptions are revealed, we need to provide multiple experiences on a theme to allow students to detect patterns and regularities in the data. We must be mindful that our goal is the development of a self-reliant and self-confident population. We wish to encourage students to be creators of new understandings and not merely consumers of prepackaged data from space.
The lessons the Mars Exploration Program, among others, is crafting will pose pre-assessment questions which will allow students to reveal to themselves the everyday conceptual understanding they possess at the start of the unit. Following this will be a series of experiences (with interposed concept questions) designed to lead students to observe, gather data, graph, and conclude. Emphasis will be placed on data manipulation rather than on brainstorming and political opinions. Near the end of each unit student attention will be focused on generalizing their new understanding to remote settings such as Mars.
Mars can provide the impetus to make a new understanding of the physical world fashionable. Our voyages can inspire us to create new resources and find new uses for raw materials. Robot activity on Mars can drive the development of energy sources to be used on site and for return missions. Human inquisitiveness and practical inventiveness can be applied to our growing understanding of the nature of material things. Education can refocus on ingenuity and the freedom of each individual to become all they can be in this new frontier age.
There are many ways to improve education in our country. Studies show that teacher enthusiasm and belief about their ability to teach a subject has a strong relationship to student achievement. Simulation games and experiential mock-ups keep the enthusiasm going. These activities also whet the appetite of teachers to learn how to carry forward this enthusiasm into units of work in which students will learn values, attitudes and skills of mechanical construction, data collection and graphical analysis. The most rewarding thing of all is that students show a great love of science taught this way. These habits of mind, when gently and appropriately used as the process for ingenious activity, energize a classroom and transform science class into a place students really want to be. Students willingly sign up for science classes which flow at an appropriate pace and allow enough focused time for students to grapple with a variety of perspectives of a particular science construct.
The Mars Exploration office offers public outreach activities and Town Hall forums. It invites universities to enthuse students and teachers within their states with the vision of Mars. In addition, the Mars Exploration Education and Outreach office is developing a series of handbooks for teachers showing how to unveil student preconceptions, how to provide a crosslinked network of activities which provide incubation time for students to notice and solidify ideas, and how to pose extension problems so students can apply their developing understandings. The units will focus on both science and engineering topics for a target population of grades 4 - 12. The vision of Mars Education activity is to help students from all walks of life prepare their ways of thinking for the radical technological changes that remote sensing and the space age are bringing to us.
-- Meredith Olson, Mars Exploration Program Educator
Seattle Country Day School