Students plotting course for Mars
By JAMES MCGINNIS
Bucks County Courier Times
Used with permission
Bensalem Schools - "Prepare for Mars orbital insertion," third-grader Jennifer Edmonds shouted from her seat at mission control in School Lane Charter School.
Jennifer's voice carried across the computer room, where dozens of students from third and seventh grades ordered further tests on a simulated space probe headed toward planet Mars.
Minutes later, word came of a critical mission failure. A solar panel had not fully deployed, the mission operations team reported.
Bensalem ... we have a problem.
Mission control manager Parth Panchal responded. The seventh-grader paced across the classroom to the mission operations desk. Parth threw up his hands in frustration as classmates around him barked hurried suggestions.
There was no clear consensus on how to proceed.
Should they maintain the probe's course and speed, and risk damaging a solar panel?
Or should they reroute the probe and send it on a slower pass around the red planet to protect the solar panel?
"I'm going to accept the advice of attitude control engineer since this is his area," a student on the mission control desk suggested, silencing some classmates.
The decision was made: Send the probe on a slower course.
Mission Public Affairs Officer Nicole Dydak, in the seventh grade, announced soon after that the probe had gone into autopilot.
"This will eventually place Mars Odyssey in a circular mapping orbit," she said, looking into a video camera.
In a nearby classroom, fellow students watched the entire mission via video-link.
Although they didn't participate in yesterday's simulated mission, they can't escape the space science curriculum planned at every grade level at School Lane, said Terrie Giardine, coordinator of math, science, technology and instruction for the school.
Students in grades two and five are growing NASA-engineered wheat seeds, which will grow in shorter stacks, and therefore can be stored more efficiently while being grown during long space missions, NASA hopes.
Kindergarten and first-grade students are studying the Earth, moon and stars. Third-graders are studying rockets in flight.
Fourth-graders are studying nature and animal life such as monkeys in Earth orbit.
Sixth-grade classes are studying the impact of space travel on human health.
Seventh-graders are studying the solar system.
And eighth-grade students, who study the Earth's environment all year, will learn about the moon's lunar gravity and its effect on Earth and the oceans.
All of these lessons come at the direction of Space Explorers Inc., a Wisconsin-based company that develops space science lessons.
Many schools, like School Lane, also can receive government grants to purchase course materials and software for Space Explorers, Giardine said.
For more information about the Mars simulator lesson or similar simulations to the moon and near asteroids, visit their Web site at www.space-explorers.com.
James McGinnis can be reached at 215-949-3248 or at jmcginnis@phillyBurbs.com.
February 10, 2004 4:38 AM