Colonizing Mars Focus of Middle School Camp

Gifted middle school students work on Mars colonization challenges.
By: Todd Martin

One hundred gifted Killeen ISD middle school students accepted the challenge to come up with a plan to successfully colonize Mars – in four days.
The Mission to Mars 2030 Gifted and Talented Camp challenged the incoming sixth- through eighth-graders to work in teams to figure out how to land safely on the surface of the Red Planet.
Working simultaneously, student groups worked to design a parachute, build a habitable shelter to last about two years, build and program a rover for transportation, communicate with the Earth and design a suit to survive the faraway planet.
Killeen ISD Advanced Academics Specialist John Jackson built the week-long camp and was excited to oversee the frenzied process at the Jackson Professional Learning Center.
On Wednesday, the third day of the camp, a group of students continued to test their parachute ideas. Jackson assisted with releasing the chutes from the roof of the JPLC building.

Student engineers considered the requirements for supporting the weight of needed supplies, including a rover – a Lego structure that different team members built, programmed and tested.
In the rover room, students worked on coding and programming their vehicles to perform specific material pick-up maneuvers.
In the communications room, students wrote letters, composed poetry and drew pictures based on data of the Mars environment. Some students also recorded video messages.
Another classroom looked like a fashion design studio, with students designing suits equipped to carry enough water and handle carbon dioxide disposal, while being properly weighted for the Mars gravity.
Team members moved from room to room to monitor progress of the different aspects of the colonization effort.
Teachers and students agreed the camp provided an interesting, intellectually challenging task that allowed students to work together while making individual contributions.
“We’re figuring out ways to survive and thrive on Mars,” said Daniela Vachier Oliveras, who just completed seventh grade at Patterson Middle School. She was working with teammates to make their parachute land so that their rover and other supplies landed upright.
“I like how we move around and create items,” she said. “If we make a mistake, we can restart or make it better.”
Down the hall, Union Grove Middle School seventh-grader Nathaniel Wester worked with a teammate on a habitation with a dome and ramp that resembled a turtle.
“I like it,” he said of the Mars Camp. “It allows you to have it your way because we solve problems as a group working together.”
He said his team considered the benefits of a shelter underground, above ground or a hybrid and decided to go with the dual design. “This is a great way for a class to come together and solve problems.”
Union Grove science teacher Crystal Watson said she enjoyed watching gifted students push themselves creatively.
“Even though they are in school, it’s not school – it’s creativity,” she said. “Their imagination and intellect are allowed to go wild.”
The shelter challenge required students to consider food needs and how to combat Mars weather, including strong winds. Watson tested structural integrity with a hairdryer. Habitations included bookshelves, ladders, grass, plants and other detail.
“I love that they are so focused,” said Audie Murphy Middle School college and career readiness teacher Susan Banks. “They are continually improving their project, working collaboratively, and taking on responsibility. It’s rewarding to watch.”
To begin the camp, students watched videos to learn about the Mars environment and NASA’s history of rover design and construction. “They are all learning about Mars and what it will take to get there,” said Jackson.
Oliveras said she had no doubt that her peers would travel to Mars someday and maybe live there.
“I’ve always been interested in space,” she said. “I want to work for NASA. I think about how (stars and planets) were created and how they affect our lives.”