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Space Exploration Workshop Places Local Youths in the Role of NASA Engineers

June 20, 1997

Fourteen local youths will have a keener interest than most come this Fourth of July when NASA’s Mars Pathfinder sends back its first video images from the Red Planet’s surface. Thanks to a program developed by the Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) and the School of Education, the 12- and 13-year-olds are getting the chance to experience first-hand what it is like to engineer a remote-controlled rover craft and guide it over a foreign terrain via computer-relayed commands.

Planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye works with Kwasi Joseph, right, and Alex Kirkendoll as they test their Mars rover design.

SSEC planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye developed the space exploration workshop with funding from the School of Education. During the two-week program at Madison’s Lincoln Elementary School the students will build a model of the martian surface, design a remote-controlled rover to explore it and create a Web site to document their project.

The kids work in groups and adopt roles based upon real-life engineering teams with a team leader, engineer, scientist, budget director and communications specialist. “We want the kids to have fun and learn about space while experiencing what it’s like to work on a team with a defined objective,” said Limaye.

At the beginning of the program the students learned about Mars and its terrain and about the NASA Pathfinder project. Before beginning to design their model landscapes and rovers, they came up with reasons for exploring Mars in the first place such as searching for the existence of life or surveying the planet’s potential for human colonization.

With their objectives in mind, the students then began work on the rovers using parts and equipment donated by the Lego Dacta company in cooperation with the California-based Planetary Society.

The rover designs make use of electric motors for driving and steering the craft. Each design must also accommodate a tiny digital video camera that is used to display on a computer monitor what the rover “sees” as it is maneuvered over the terrain.

Boyang Li adjusts his team's rover so that it will accommodate the digital camera that will send back video images of what the rover "sees" as it explores the team's model of Mars' surface.

Zoua Her, left, and Elizabeth Perez put the finishing touches on their team's model of a martian landscape.

The workshop concludes this Friday with a demonstration by the students for their families. Just as NASA engineers will be doing, the students will have to remotely guide their craft through their model martian landscapes using only the digital feedback from the video camera for guidance.

The equipment for the workshop will remain with Lincoln Elementary School when it concludes. David Wirth, a teacher at Lincoln, is helping Limaye conduct the workshop along with SSEC administrative assistant Rose Pertzborn. Next fall Wirth will adapt the project into Lincoln’s curriculum for fourth and fifth graders. Limaye, Pertzborn and others from the SSEC will meet to talk and work with the students from time to time.

The workshop is part of UW–Madison’s College Access Program which targets motivated minority students. About 90 students from several Madison schools are participating in six different workshops: Animal Social Behavior, Biotechnology, Computer Graphics, Magazine Publishing, Photography and Space Exploration.

View the Web sites that the teams are building to document their projects. (The sites are under construction.)

Tags: learning