Friday, August 6, 2010

In a galaxy not so far away...

A live teleconference between a group of students in Chicago and a group of NASA scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California might sounds like something from the future (or at least from the Sci-Fi channel). Yesterday, however, I witnessed a dynamic video exchange between over forty students who just completed the Imagine Mars Project and a group of seven NASA scientists who were genuinely impressed by the kids’ accomplishments in the program.

Last week Rose Mabwa from Mercy Housing invited me to attend a culminating presentation by students involved with the Imagine Mars Project in Chicago. This six-week program sponsored by NASA represents “a national arts, sciences, and technology education initiative that leads students to work together with scientists, engineers, artists, and environmentalists to design a futuristic Mars community.” This past summer, the Illinois Neighborhood Networks Consortium (ILNNC), a non-profit which enhances and sustains Neighborhood Networks in Illinois, organized this program in a collaborative effort between its centers.

Fittingly, yesterday’s presentation was held at the Museum of Science and Industry where video screens projected a live stream from JPL in Los Angeles. In her comments introducing the program, Rose explained that Imagine Mars offers an engaging way for students to learn about science, engineering, architecture, math, and green technology during the summer. The students are mentored by professionals from NASA, water conservation organizations, and green technology centers who help them to design sustainable communities fit for human habitation on Mars. Each group of students also built a model of their community using recycled materials.

In designing their imagined cities and towns, students discussed what they considered important aspects of a community given the opportunity to start from scratch. These discussions often led to revealing conversations. As Rose said, sometimes kids see things in a more “pure and uncomplicated” form than do adults. When debating whether or not to put a police station on Mars, one student felt it was unnecessary while another said that people immigrating to Mars might come with “bad habits.” I was fascinated by these types of insights and the thoughtful reflection the students obviously invested into their projects.

Students were encouraged to focus on making their communities sustainable. As one student explained, “We don’t want to destroy another planet!” The communities were designed with a number of environmentally-conscience innovations ranging from solar paneled heating to water filtration systems that recycled melted water from Mars’ underground glaciers. Upon hearing that one community featured movie screens that could only be powered by pedaling on a stationary bike, one NASA scientist jokingly asserted that this would probably cut down on her habit of watching bad movies.

I was really impressed by the students' hard work and creativity. I was also excited to see how the combined efforts of many organizations and community members resulted in a spectacularly well-rounded project. Imagine Mars truly demonstrates the value in kids interacting with an array of professionals who model a variety of career choices.

Rose plans to hold a workshop at our November 2010 Tutor/Mentor Leadership and Networking Conference discussing how Imagine Mars might be replicated by other programs in Chicago. As was evident today, it is definitely a project worthy of imitation.

Congrats to all of the students, ILNNC, NASA, and everyone else involved in the project. I know that next time I sit down to watch a movie, I will consider whether or not it would be worth several hours on a stationary bike...

1 comment:

  1. If people who work at NASA and at science labs and engineering companies would share these examples with their peers, they could encourage volunteers with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) backgrounds to join programs like Cabrini Connections, and build MARS type learning groups that connect our kids to this type of activity.

    This could be happening in many of the nearly 200 tutoring and/or mentoring programs we know of in Chicago, if just a few leaders from the STEM industry would step forward with consistent leadership.

    Hopefully, some will visit our web sites, or attend the conferences, and see how they can take this leadership role.