NEW ALBANY — The unearthly terrain was unforgiving, and the rock-strewn path was merciless.
While other robots had already perished on the surface of Mars, members of Team Gamma managed to keep their nerves in check as their little robot plowed over the Red Planet’s unrelenting landscape — just as they skillfully programmed it to do.
All eyes were fixed on the little — but fierce — robot as it kept on trucking past multiple challenging obstacles and deftly turning several tricky corners as it pressed on toward its goal.
When it reached wheel stop at its destination — a pile of miniature blue rocks that no other robot had yet reached — the room erupted in loud applause and big high fives.
It was an exciting afternoon at Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute New Albany on Thursday, as the collective group of high school students and educators enjoyed cheering for all the mini-marvels of engineering prowess and calculated coding that were created during the “Purdue: Mission to Mars” event.
A NASA-modeled simulation program, the purpose of Mission to Mars was to aid students in their real-world knowledge of engineering principles through hands-on project-based learning.
It was a stellar opportunity for participants to experience what it’s like to apply science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning to real-world challenges in order to achieve out-of-this-world accomplishments, said Andrew Takami, director of Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute New Albany.
He was all smiles as he quickly moved around the room shooting photos, taking videos and cheering excitedly for all the students and their creations.
“Isn’t this wonderful?” he said. “It’s just so exciting to be able to offer this to students in our community.”
Thirty students participated in the one-day summer program, which was made possible by a grant from the Indiana Department of Education and in partnership with Prosser Career Education Center. It was free for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors.
At the event, six student teams assumed different engineering roles to program algorithms and other features on robots to navigate an artificial surface of Mars to accomplishing certain tasks that were part of the simulation.
“The main task was for the student teams to extract soil samples for analysis by using the robots since NASA scientists had detected, through satellite imagery, a blue substance near part of the Elysium Mons Crater on Mars,” Takami said.
“So, each member of the teams had a different role in the simulation — things like design engineer, test engineer, etc.”
Most of the students had never met before, so they had to use both their brains and people skills each step of the way on the simulation.
“This was a lot of fun and really challenging,” said Ashton Human, 15, who attends Martha Layne Collins High School in Shelbyville, Ky. “It was a great opportunity for me.”
Ashton, a member of winning Team Gamma, only knew one of his teammates when he started the day. The rest were strangers who were suddenly his partners in innovation.
“But that was okay because we were focused on working toward a common goal, and so we just put the pedal to the metal to get the job done,” he said, as he sported a gold medal awarded for his team’s achievement.
His Mom, Alisa, was ecstatic when she arrived to pick him up from the event and learned his team won.
As she took his picture in front of the miniature replica of the surface of Mars, she said, “He’s always loved working with teams, so it doesn’t surprise me he did well being with a group.”
A Purdue graduate herself, Human said she knew the Mission to Mars program would be top notch because it had her alma mater’s engineering expertise infused into the activities throughout the day.
“This is what Purdue is known for — so we were excited to see them offering this program,” she said. “We knew it would be a great day.”
And that was exactly the message Takami was hoping resonated with all participants and their families.
He said the main goal for hosting the event was to encourage young people toward STEM career fields at Purdue Polytechnic, “which I know we did well because some of the students said they were not even planning to go to college because they did not realize colleges could be so relevant.”
Even more, they wanted to make the community at large more aware of Purdue Polytechnic’s “increasing value in the region and how we can help,” he said, as well as “strengthen a partnership with another local entity, Prosser Career Education Center.”
While Team Gamma may have won the day’s challenge, all participants gained a unique experience not often available to Southern Indiana students.
And that’s something Takami and his team of educators at Purdue Polytechnic New Albany are hoping to change.
“Moving forward, I would very much like for us to have the opportunity to continue hosting this program,” Takami said. “Additionally, I am interested for us to partner with other entities … to strengthen this program and to develop other strategic alliances."
He said seeing the students fully engaged in the hands-on learning was exactly what he and his team of educators envisioned when meticulously planning the day.
“Some of the greatest moments for me was seeing students interact within their teams in ways they otherwise would not. Since the roles were somewhat assigned, not everyone got what they exactly wanted,” Takami said.
“However, in working together, they noticed how the we-teams are so important, and they got to test their ability to problem solve and create things through project-based learning.”