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The Mars Lab: authentic science experiences for students

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Project log

Isabelle Kingsley
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The 30 year decline in young people undertaking science in senior secondary school includes a decline in Earth Science study. The Mars Lab is a federally funded two year partnership between the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney University, and the University of NSW, which delivers direct and practical learner engagement with contemporary science and engineering. The project makes a unique range of experiences and learning objects, including a 140 square metre scientifically accurate replica of the Martian surface, and three experimental Mars Rovers, accessible to Australian school and university learners. Classroom learning modules, developed and refined in partnership with teachers from multiple schools across three states, engage young Australians in authentic learning challenges related to the search for evidence of life on Mars, and the technologies which enable that search. Progressive educational approaches, and unique digital tools and software, activate learners to work collaboratively in planning scientific missions to investigate the rocks and geological features in the Mars Yard. They then connect to the Mars Lab from their classroom, via web interface and video conference, and carry out missions by controlling rovers and operating scientific instruments. Evidence, including photographic images and instrument data, is captured for post-mission analysis and interpretation. This presentation illustrates the development and implementation of the educational materials, including the unique digital tools and software, during the project’s pilot phase. Results and challenges are explored through case study examples. One classroom learning module, Project Mars, which employs the Project Based Learning approach, is highlighted.
Background Much has been written about the need to increase inquiry-based learning opportunities in high school science curricula, authenticity of the science experiences and student interest in science. The literature points to the need to engage students in authentic, inquiry-based science experiences in order for them to understand the true nature of science beyond the classroom (Abd-el-Khalik et. al., 2004, Walker, 2007, National Research Council, 1996: 23). However, it is difficult to reproduce such truly open-ended science experiences in the science classroom or lab. Fergusson et al (2012) suggest that astrobiology outreach activities can influence young people’s interest in science and their understanding of the nature of science. Oliver (2008) also suggests that student and teacher contact with real research is crucial to understanding how science is actually practiced. Method We present a double blind study aimed at understanding the effectiveness of supporting school science curricula with appropriate astrobiology outreach opportunities that are authentic in nature, hands-on, connected to practicing scientists in the field, and student-centred but also pedagogically scaffolded via structured Project-Based Learning in combination with Question Formulation Technique. To test this idea we used a working lab, the Mars Lab, and a Project Based Learning (PBL) program, Project Mars, which runs over five to six weeks. Project Mars, is run in tandum with Mars robotics and science researchers and schools via the Internet using a novel approach to engaging students and their teachers in looking for evidence of past or present life on Mars. Students had the opportunity to develop their own questions and from those to devise missions on a 140 square metre Mars Yard and carry those missions out in teams by driving one of three research-grade Experimental Mars Rovers from their classroom supported by a range of unique digital tools and video-conferencing. We report on the results from a study with two Australian high schools – one in the city and the other a country school – in integrating the benefits of authentic astrobiology outreach experience with formal science learning. Results Two researchers independently found the teachers and a substantial number of the students reporting increased understanding of the nature of science and interest in science as well as perceived improvement in employability skills. The study provides compelling evidence that combining student-centred, inquiry-based approaches with authentic astrobiology research opportunities for students can produce positive outcomes for both students and science teachers in the context of the formal learning environment.