“Watch out NASA! We’re coming!” were the words of a high-school student who
recently participated in the Mars Student Imaging Project, jointly sponsored
by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, its Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Arizona State University in Tempe.

The Mars Student Imaging Project allows students from the fifth grade
through community college to take their own pictures of Mars using a thermal
infrared visible camera system onboard NASA’s Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which
is currently circling the red planet.

“The effect we are having on the students and their teachers is our
validation,” said Mars Student Imaging Project Assistant Director Keith
Watt. “We’re changing the way teachers teach and students learn in a
dynamic, cutting-edge environment, using the exploration of Mars as the

The Formula for Success: Mars Exploration for All

The Mars Student Imaging Project is for everyone, not just for the most
motivated students and space-savvy teachers. The project was designed “by
teachers, for teachers,” so the lessons and activities are easy to implement
in the classroom, and reflect the National Science Education Standards for
learning. In addition, the project’s educational staff has made adaptations
for students who speak Spanish or who use sign language. Future plans also
include working on activities for visually impaired students.

Students of all backgrounds say they feel like adults or real scientists
because they are learning the same skills that professional scientists use
on a regular basis. Just as Mars scientists use the camera to map landforms
and geologic features on the Martian surface, the students are imaging
everything from small, unnamed craters to large and familiar features such
as Valles Marineris, the largest canyon system in the solar system. Students
watch their image come down from the spacecraft and learn how to analyze
data using image-processing techniques. They also get a chance to discuss
their preliminary analysis with actual Mars mission scientists.

“The neat part of this project is that the student teams get to make the
decision to target whatever site on Mars they feel will best allow them to
answer their own scientific questions,” said Mars Student Imaging Project
Assistant Director Paige Valderrama. “They’re working side by side with the
scientists, avidly wondering about the geology and climate of another

Preparing the Next Generation of Workforce

Many of the students who have been involved in the project are now
considering careers in space exploration. Those who weren’t motivated at all
in school are excited about their studies and almost forget that they are
learning. As one student put it, “This is better than school!”

Creators of the Mars Student Imaging Project like to think of it as an
example of what school can actually be in this increasingly high-tech age: a
chance-of-a-lifetime experience for students to be directly involved with a
NASA mission to another planet.

NASA has a vital interest in inspiring the next generation of explorers, and
the Mars Student Imaging Project aligns with that intent. With a planned
program of multiple orbiters around Mars for the next few decades, the
nation’s space agency will essentially establish a “permanent presence” for
research around Mars. The exciting extension of this orbital presence is
that it opens up opportunities for a “permanent presence” in the classroom,
open to new groups of students year after year. These opportunities
contribute to the education of today’s students so that they will be
prepared for the high-skill careers of the future.

“By design, the skills required to do these Mars science activities can be
applied to many different aspects of life,” said Mars Student Imaging
Project Director Sheri Klug. “These are core skills, like problem solving
and critical thinking, which will academically help them no matter what
career paths they end up choosing.”

Extending Opportunities to Participate

Perhaps one of the biggest bonuses of the Mars Student Imaging Project is
that the student teams are now voluntarily acting as mentors for other
interested students. For example, a recent student team of eleven
participants went back to their school, reaching out to an additional 100
students. While some student teams decide to come to Arizona State
University (often, on their own initiative, holding yard sales and finding
corporate sponsors in their communities), others can have the same
interactive experience through Internet conferencing and teleconferencing,
or with archived data sets available online. That opens the doors for anyone
to participate, right from their desktops.

Even the teachers benefit from the experience by learning how to teach what
Klug calls an “instead of” curriculum. That is, “instead of” using standard,
pre-set classroom worksheets and simulations, the curriculum provides a
hands-on, engaging way to participate in genuine planetary exploration and
discovery. This participation in real, ongoing scientific discovery-not as
bystanders, but as decision-makers-not only boosts students’ self-esteem and
motivates them to learn, but also gives them a new experience of themselves.

“I wish there was some way to preserve this enthusiasm for learning and pass
it on to all students,” said Cindy Wurmnest, an Illinois teacher who
participated in the project.

Any teacher in the United States can fully participate in the program by
downloading the Mars Student Imaging Project curriculum materials from
http://msip.asu.edu . More information about NASA’s long-term Mars
Exploration Program can be found at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov .