MORAVIA — The silence of the room was broken by only the humming of a robotics Lego vehicle.
The autonomous robot, about the size of a brick, propelled itself around a table, knowing exactly when to turn, stop or move forward.
It was meant to be a concept model for a Mars rover, programmed for specific tasks, such as collecting water molecules or repairing solar panels.
It navigated a course, collecting Lego pieces — or “water molecules” — with “Ahs!” and “Ohs!” erupting from a team of students every time the robot collected or missed one.
Successful or not, when the vehicle’s mission was complete, the classroom of Moravia Middle School eighth-graders broke into applause, while the team at the table collected its robot, making room for another team to see how its months of work stood up to the test.
This was one of three events the middle school hosted Thursday morning, part of the eighth-grade class’s “Mission to Mars” initiative — the conclusion of a problem-based unit that explored how human life could survive and thrive on Mars.
“Moravia is an innovative school,” said Bruce MacBain, middle school principal. “We’re always looking to go outside of the box for our curriculum.”
The school likes to give students opportunities to participate in project-based learning activities in which they learn life skills such as problem solving.
MacBain said last year, the eighth-graders learned about media literacy and ran their own “presidential campaign” for the candidates who ran for president last year.
With no election this year, the school needed a new topic, eventually landing on its “Mission to Mars” idea.
The event, which ends in a grade for the students, consists of three activities. They are: A robotics challenge using the Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots, presenting a fictional Mars colony to a panel of professionals and being given a random challenging situation and having to solve it.
The preparation began in October with a three-week “robotics bootcamp,” where students learned how to build and program the Lego robots. Students then learned how to create 3-D digital designs and print them on a 3-D printer.
To research how to develop a colony on Mars, students visited Cornell University, discussing architecture, hydroponics and 3-D printing with professors and students. They also attended a NASA presentation at the college.
Throughout the process, students were able to have Skype sessions with Scott Guzewich, a research astrophysicist and planetary scientist from NASA.
“The students have been excited about all of the activities,” said Karen Schaub, an eighth-grade science teacher at the school. “They really rose to the occasion.”
They were placed in groups of five to six students, and they all got to participate in each activity.
When the groups were tasked with presenting the Mars colony they developed, they were not presenting to teachers and students. They presented their ideas to a panel of eight people from companies such as Welsh Allyn, Thermo Fisher Scientific — a partner with Space X — and Lockheed Martin.
And each group came prepared. No details were spared.
Students presented the colony’s organizational structure, where on Mars it would be located, architectural ideas for how the houses would be built, how food would be engineered, a governmental system for the colony and a constitution to govern it.
They also created a 3-D model of their colony to give the panelist a better idea of what it would look like.
At the conclusion of each presentation, the groups answered a swarm of questions from the panelists about every detail of the proposed colony.
“We’re giving them real world experience with an authentic audience and high-level questions,” said Julie Hempson, an eighth-grade middle school teacher at the school.
Eighth-grader Dallas Pierson said she liked the presentation activity the most because she enjoyed presenting to people she looks up to.
“It was an honor to present to them,” she said.
Being able to work with a team was one of her favorite parts of the program, too, she said before conversing with her team about their Lego robot.
Her teammate, eighth-grader John Read, said the challenge of all the activities is what is most fun to him, as the teams can get no help from their teachers.
“It is really exciting,” he said. “Not many schools get to do this.”
With the robot ready, Pierson, Read and their team made their way to position the robot on the table. The room went quiet as the team started the robot and it began its Mars mission.