Mission to Mars takes students out of this world

Martian rover
Thursday, 31 March, 2011
Bob Beale

High school students from around Australia will embark on a mission to Mars and learn what it is like to follow science and engineering careers.

The simulated mission exhibit, installed at the Sydney Powerhouse Museum as part of the University of New South Wales’ Pathways to Space project, is a recipient of almost $1 million in funding under the Federal Government’s Australian Space Research Program.

Launching the project today at the museum, Innovation Minister Senator Kim Carr said encouraging Australia’s youth to take up studies in science and engineering was a key priority for the Government and important for ensuring the necessary skills base for industries of the future.

“The Gillard Labor Government recognises the imperative for Australia to address identified skills shortages in science and engineering by encouraging young Australians to further their studies in these critical fields,” Senator Carr said.

“This is a message we have highlighted in Inspiring Australia, the Government’s national strategy for engagement with the sciences, and the Research Workforce Strategy, which I will announce in the coming weeks.

Pathways to Space will inspire students by taking them into a 'living lab' where they will participate in a research project on a simulated Martian surface known as the ‘Mars Yard’. Here they will learn about science and engineering.”

Pathways to Space is part of a long-term study to help shape the delivery of science education.

“Thanks to TelePresence, Cisco’s high-quality videoconferencing system, students from regional and remote areas of Australia will not be left behind – they too will be able to join the mission,” Senator Carr said.

The President and Vice-Chancellor of UNSW, Professor Fred Hilmer AO, said the project was one result of UNSW winning two space-related grants and vindicated the university's decision a few years ago to build its capacity in astrobiology.

"But the real winning is the one that comes from seeing the project come to life and make a contribution, seeing it affect people's lives, seeing it build knowledge and understanding, seeing kids in classrooms around the country infected by the opportunities to learn and to get involved," Professor Hilmer said.  The project was unusual in that it involved research being carried out in a public space and involved a disclipined study of the effectiveness of an outreach program of this kind in developing skills and advancing knowledge, he said.

Project Director, Dr Carol Oliver, of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW, said: “For the first time in Australia, we have a chance to engage students and their teachers in real research as part of a major educational outreach project as well as the opportunity to measure the results of placing ongoing science and engineering research in a significant public space.”

The project has been developed by a consortium of partners led by UNSW (Australian Centre for Astrobiology, School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences and School of Physics), in conjunction with the University of Sydney (Australian Centre for Field Robotics), Cisco and the Powerhouse Museum.

It is a collaborative, hands-on program enabling year 10-12 students to plan space exploration projects using a living laboratory to simulate realistic scenarios and gain an understanding of space engineering challenges.

The project has three inter-linked elements designed to deliver a positive educational experience to thousands of secondary school students, provide a vehicle for four new space-related doctorates and a long-term longitudinal study, the results of which will help to guide the delivery of science education in the future.

The key element is a space science educational program which will be hosted at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, for Years 10-12 students.  Over the three-year period of the grant more than 2,000 students will have an opportunity to participate in the program and to work closely with space science and space engineering researchers from the Australian Centre for Astrobiology and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics. A 'living laboratory' will be created at the Powerhouse, perhaps the first of its kind in creating direct engagement between science, engineering and high school students.

In essence, the students will be exposed to the multidisciplinary nature of space science through the planning, conduct and analysis of the results of a simulated remote sensing mission to Mars, and to be able to test their calculations in a software program simulation. They will engage in the robotics research being carried out in the Powerhouse and will use Cisco's TelePresence as a unique window onto the research environment, connecting them live with the astrobiology research lab at UNSW.

The longitudinal research will study the long-term impact of undertaking space science research in the museum environment and in hands-on engagement with high school students. While it is known that contact with science and engineering inspires high school students, nothing is known of the long term effect or how much contact is needed to have a long-term impact. The lack of such data is a national and international issue that hampers understanding of what is necessary and sufficient to engage young students in science and engineering, including in the space research area.

The Australian Space Research Program is developing Australia's niche space capabilities and creating job opportunities in industries of the future. It is part of the Government’s $1.1 billion Super Science Initiative. The Program has supported 11 projects so far with a total value of over $34 million.


Media contacts:
Dr Carol Oliver - 0417 477 612 -
Bob Beale UNSW Faculty of Science - 0411 705 435 -