HENRYVILLE — NASA’s latest mission to Mars is providing a unique experience for Henryville High School students to learn about what it takes to make a rover successful on the red planet, which educators say they hope can help inspire students toward future careers.
Students in teacher Donna Gatza’s Biology classes are spending seven weeks of their 18-week semester on a series of projects related to the Mars rover Perseverance, which launched July 30 and landed Feb. 21 in the Jezero Crater on Mars. The mission’s aim is to seek signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples, potentially to take back to Earth.
“NASA has provided all kinds of incredible activities for the kids to learn hands-on, to be exposed to different careers, to be experienced to different things,” Gatza said. “Until this happened, how many people knew there was a thing called Astrobiology? It’s important to get the kids excited about something and out of their books.”
The lesson plans and activities have included students building their own rovers. Working in teams, they selected the size and type of materials (made from dried pasta) based on their budget, then designed and built the rovers using an app on their Chromebooks.
“[They] had to pick a launch system, there was budget in this and everything has a cost,” the teacher said. “So they had to design their entire mission based on what they had a budget for. And then there were some funky things like they missed a launch date, the government cut their funding — the things that really happen.”
On Friday, the teams in each class tested their finished rovers, measuring the distance reached from launch — in this case, pulled by gravity down a ramp in the classroom.
Kyra Robinson, a member of the winning team from Gatza’s fourth-period class, said she and her team worked to make the rover heavier so it would pick up more speed, “but you also have to incorporate a camera,” she said.
Another student, Caleb Horter, said he learned that what goes into making a rover is not as simple as one might think.
“It takes a lot to make a rover — it’s much harder than it seems,” he said.
Gatza, who has a background in manufacturing engineering, said it was nice to watch the students work on the project, which mirrors the actual mission.
“When they designed...they sat as engineers and technicians and decided what they wanted in their mission and then they had to fit it in their budget,” she said. “They had to work together...the collaboration has been incredible.”
Henryville Principal Leah Seng said she was excited for the NASA partnership, which provides a lot of creative learning opportunities. The organization has been providing the blueprints and schematics for design, but it’s kind of a bigger thing than ‘NASA is going to send you some stuff and you’re going to collect soma data,’” she said.
Longer-term, Seng said she’d like to see collaboration between different class disciplines, and incorporation of the new manufacturing path the school is developing.
“We [would] start with our manufacturing pathway...they use the blueprints to design the pieces our students need and then in the other classes, the students will use the designed pieces our own kids made to build their projects,” Seng said.
“The end game is for our own students to learn how to read schematics and blueprints, design and then use those materials, so we’re incredibly excited about that.”
In Gatza’s classes, the final phase is remote programming — using the 3-D rover model, students will be designing a computer game with a Mars rover that goes out and picks up samples.