December 6, 2021

Moravia students ‘explore’ Mars

Eighth-graders employ robots as part of project on red planet

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

As part of a Mars exploration obstacle course, Moravia eighth-graders have to retrieve a disabled rover Thursday during a Martian exploration competition.

MORAVIA — Karoline Head-Martinez jumped up and down, her long blond ponytail swinging, when her Mars rover robot successfully collected “ice” from the surface of Mars on its third try.

The surface of Mars was a printout replica of the red planet, set up Thursday morning on the floor of Kristin Mackey’s eighth-grade Moravia Middle School classroom. Students had to make their robots complete different tasks, like collecting ice (Lego blocks) and returning them to the home base, or save a fellow rover from a sandpit.

Head-Martinez had been having difficulty with the ice collection task before. The pre-programed robot would drop the ice and run over it, getting stuck — never making it back to home base.

When on her third attempt, the robot held onto the Legos and rolled back to its underground base, Head-Martinez ran over and hugged Mackey.

“When you first place it down, that’s really important,” Head-Martinez said after she figured out angling the robot correctly from the start was key.

“That was kind of the highlight of my day,” Mackey said later.

Over the past two months, Mackey has seen Head-Martinez progress from a student who was reluctant to program robots to being committed to succeed. She would spend lunch hours with Mackey to figure out the lessons.

That’s the goal of project-based learning exercises, said Middle School Principal Bruce MacBain.

Throughout the year the school does different project-based lessons. Thursday was the culmination of two months worth of study about what it takes to live on Mars.

Eighth-graders Connor Fox, left, and Kyler Adams of Mars exploration team Nova Nation compete in a robotics obstacle course Thursday at Moravia Junior-Senior High School.

Teachers from each subject area teach the lessons, then the students present their topics before a panel of experts.

Students had to convince the panel of experts Thursday that the Mars colony that their team had devised was the best — convince them that it would not only allow inhabitants to live on Mars, but thrive there.

Students had to come up with the type of government structure that would run the colony, design replicas of the colony with 3-D printers, largely using mathematic equations, and explain how they would survive on a planet that lacks Earth’s oxygen, gravity and warmth.

Figuring out how to live on Mars actually teaches a lot about life and physical science on Earth, said science teacher Megan Newhouse.

“They are learning beyond a math problem, or memorizing facts,” Newhouse said. “This gives them an understanding of big-scale problems, using 21st Century skills and collaboration and teamwork and thinking outside the box.”

Students consider questions like whether children be born on Mars; or how a fetus might develop on a planet that has 38 percent of Earth’s gravity, she said.

Zoe Learner Ponterio, a manager at Cornell’s Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility, sat on the panel of experts.

She said the lessons are topicbased, as opposed to subjectbased, introducing students to real-life problem-solving skills.

“Kids see how different subjects come together, that they are not as compartmentalized as school makes it seem,” she said.

And it’s sometimes fun. Aydin Bushey, a member of team Utopian Dystopia, said his favorite part was programing the robot.

“It was interesting,” he said. “We took a lot of time and effort for it.”