OGDEN -- Nearly 200 area fifth-graders conducted careful research, and constructed inflatable habitats for their "Mission to Mars" this week.
The flower boxes and windows pre-drawn with markers on the plastic shelters were a nice touch. The depictions of squiggle-limbed, antenna-topped martians might have seemed politically incorrect to any actual aliens dropping by on the red planet.
But this learning mission took places more than 34 million miles from the Martian surface, in the ballroom of Weber State's Shepherd Union Building.
"The students come up with their own life-support systems, and we ask them to research their air, food and transport needs," said Debbie Roach, STEM Outreach director for Hill Air Force Base. "They learn critical thinking and how to solve problems, and they get more excited about studying math and science because they see how they can use it."
Hill Air Force Base partners with Weber State University for the annual project, now in its third year. Both entities have strong motivation to get people more interested in the fields of the STEM acronym: science, technology, engineering and math.
"It's really important for kids to gain interest in STEM fields," said Rainie Ingram, Weber State's recruitment coordinator for the College of Applied Science & Technology. "This is a fun way they can start thinking about the fields, and maybe consider taking classes in junior high or high school."
Fifth-graders and a few sixth-graders arrived from Taylor Canyon Elementary, the DaVinci Academy, and St. Joseph's Elementary School, in Ogden, and King Elementary, Layton. Divided into 14 groups by school classes, students laid out sheet plastic they had cut to precise measurements, labeled, and in some cases decorated.
Students used duct tape to attach wall, floor, ceiling and entrance pieces. Plastic tubes linked structures to fans that would inflate them. Large tube tunnels let students travel between structures.
"We only had 10 habitats last year," Ingram said. "If we keep growing we will need a larger space."
Roach shared her favorite student comment from the year before.
"She said, 'I didn't know I loved math,'" Roach said. "It tickles me to get any child interested in math or science."
Dana Jensen, DaVinci Academy math teacher, said her students prepared for the mission starting their first week of school.
"They created mission patches with their names around the circle, just like the real mission patches," Jensen said. "They made life-support systems to survive, and they put a lot of effort into those, and how they would work."
The systems around the room were models, of course. One contained fake ivy to represent oxygen-producing plants. Plastic tubing inserted into cardboard boxes was common, but students could explain the reasoning behind their design choices.
Students also packed in precise amounts of water and food, to be weighed as they entered the room and as they left. Groups prepared a saga, in poetry, song or skit form, to tell their story and enhance their language arts skills.
Jensen said there was a major benefit besides increased STEM interest.
"We have kids who struggle working together for a goal," she said. "It's miraculous. That's the coolest thing."
Larry Roe, father of Taylor Canyon student Annie, 11, said the team effort also impressed him.
"It wasn't like that when I went to school in 1960," he said. "We never worked that well as a group. I think the teamwork benefit is probably underestimated."
Annie took a construction break to discuss the project.
"It's really cool and kind of hard," she said. "Living on Mars would probably be a lot different than living on Earth. Having less gravity would be fun, but the temperatures range from 72 Fahrenheit to minus 194 Fahrenheit. That part wouldn't be fun."
Annie said she is on a science track already.
"I might want to be an author or a scientist, or a scientist/author."
Nathan Schaffer, a DaVinci student, said cutting and measuring were the hardest.
"Learning all about Mars, and especially about its atmosphere, was the fun part," the 11-year-old said.
Jessalyn Norris, 12 and a DaVinci student, didn't find her habitat all that livable.
"It's really hot in there," she said. "But it's a really cool project. You have to make really close measurements and you have to work together."
Alison Ceranski, a second lieutenant at Hill Air Force Base, volunteered to help at Mission to Mars so she could support the next generation.
"I'm an engineer, and growing up I didn't have stuff like this," she said. "If I had, I would have found my path sooner. I'm really impressed with the kids' motivation and their team work, getting the job done. It's great to see them so excited."
Contact reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg at 801-625-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @S_ENancyVanV.