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My Kids Became Martian Spelunkers Thanks to NASA
published during a waning crescent moon.
08/01/2016

Martian Spelunkers

Last year, my kids hunted for caves on Mars without ever leaving our living room thanks to Arizona State University’s Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), a program that allows people of all ages and educational backgrounds to use real live Mars data to perform actual science. The program is free for public, private, and homeschool classes, but also groups of interested kids, and even self-motivated individuals.

As a homeschool mom, I’m always on the lookout for cool ways to teach my children science and math. We do all of the traditional science projects, and a couple of nontraditional ones, but textbook projects generally begin with the end in mind. That’s why when I wrote up an article on MSIP for Space.com several years ago, I knew I had found a fantastic opportunity for my kids. Luckily, they shared my enthusiasm for the project–when I asked them if they wanted to do real science using images captured by NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, they responded with a resounding “YES!

Martian Spelunkers

Mookie Redd circles Martian features he might be interested in studying. Credit: Nola Taylor Redd

Each week, eight students gathered in my living room, and, together, we tried to come to a consensus on which research question to explore. The students and I discussed several topics that caught their curiosity, ranging from volcanoes to Marsquakes to the possibility of Martian life. I asked the kids to examine the MSIP images and find terrestrial features they thought were unusual and exciting. Doing so generated even more questions and required additional follow-up research, but eventually, the kids found some common ground—they were all fascinated by fallen lava tubes.

Lava tubes form when lava cools in a tunnel shape on the Martian surface. Cave-ins, or ‘skylights’, create entrances into the tunnels. Some scientists have speculated that these tunnels could provide future inhabitants of the Red Planet with naturally formed homes. It’s possible that life is taking shelter in lava tubes now.

 

The students measured the distribution of lava tube cave-ins across the Martian surface and analyzed the distance between them. Their goal was to compare the size of the cave-ins to the size of existing NASA rovers to see if the latter could fit inside the former—kind of like trying to see if a car will fit in a garage. The kids also hoped to find groupings of lava tubes that could serve as a kind of extraterrestrial housing development. They recorded their discoveries on a map of Mars and were eventually able to propose a site they felt was the best candidate for future rover exploration and investigation.

I was impressed by how excited my students were throughout the process. They had many animated discussions—they argued over how life could survive on Mars and had heated debates about the logistics of investigating lava tubes. They wondered what it might mean to live on the Red Planet, and they considered all the ways to get humans there. They studied the variety of terrestrial features on Mars and learned about how they formed. They presented their information to one another, and to the (now former) MSIP program coordinator, Jessica Swann. Throughout it all, I served as a mentor, keeping the conversation on track when it occasionally drifted, while allowing the students to direct their own research—which is just what real scientists do.

Martian Spelunkers

Jimmy Redd & Josh Whitcomb learn to identify features on Mars. Credit: Nola Taylor Redd

The process was very similar to do doing real science, though in a more controlled setting—an advantage that the MSIP points out on their website. Scientists spend their careers continuously expanding their expertise in one field via a long process of asking questions and seeking their answers. Like adult scientists, my young students studied data, asked questions about it, and searched through articles and scientific papers to find out what questions had already been asked and answered. Often, the information they found caused them to ask new questions and conduct new research.

Since completing the project, I’ve encouraged other homeschool parents to give MSIP a try. While my background as a science journalist may seem to uniquely qualify me to teach the course, the program is set up to guide both students and adults from all backgrounds. I believe that when it comes to science, the best way to learn something is often to look it up. MSIP gives students many opportunities to do so. For instance, my then-ninth grader is considering searching for previously unspotted skylights, now that she knows what to look for. A seventh grader in our class attempted to design rover wheels that could better explore Mars’ mountainous regions, where many unexplored lava tubes remain. In each case, the student’s research raised more questions than they answered. And that’s how science gets done, whether in a university setting or the comfort of your own home.

Have your students, scouts, or kids answer their Martian questions by forming their own group.