Interactive learning environments are engaging a new generation of learners in exciting and meaningful ways and institutions within the AARNet community are innovators in this field.
There’s the Mars Yard, for example, a 3D recreation of the Martian landscape and adjacent robotics laboratory, located inside Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
Here, high school students are given the opportunity to partake in real scientific research while researchers evaluate the success of the education program and also investigate robotics engineering and other scientific problems.
For the education program, which is aligned to the Australian curriculum and currently funded by the Broadband Enabled Education and Skills Services program run by the Federal Department of Education, students participate via high-speed broadband connections using AARNet and the national broadband network.
Mission planning and interactive activities, such as driving experimental roving vehicles similar to NASA’s Mars Rovers to find evidence, teach students about the challenges of conducting robotic missions on Mars.
The aim is for the hands-on experience of exploring Mars and learning about robotics, space flight and evidence of life elsewhere in the universe to inspire more students to pursue science-related studies and careers.
A consortium led by the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW in partnership with the Powerhouse Museum and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney is the driving force behind the Mars Yard.
The facility was created in 2010 as a resource for the federally funded Pathways to Space Australian Space Research Program (completed early 2013), which investigated bringing research and education together in a public place to ignite the interest of high school students in space studies and careers.
A highly successful part of the project involved testing an international collaboration with the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Australian students from four Sydney high schools worked on their research project at the Powerhouse Museum, using an AARNet connection to access the THEMIS (Thermal Imaging System) camera on board the $300m Odyssey spacecraft in orbit around Mars, as well as with NASA scientists and educators at ASU. Astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden also visited Pathways to Space to meet with the students in person.
Dr Carol Oliver of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of NSW and lead researcher said, “We were more than surprised to find that in just a short interaction with scientists and engineers while using the Mars Yard, students had significantly increased their understanding of creativity in science.”
For the duration of Pathways to Space program, the Mars Yard was also used as a test bed for robotics research, and research in this field, along with space and education research, continues there today.
The Mars Yard has also provided numerous undergraduate and post-graduate research opportunities and has been used to redesign a space engineering course at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney that now boasts the highest Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) in the country.
Take a look at this video for an introduction to the Mars Yard:
Oliver says that the end of the Pathways to Space project is just the beginning for the Mars Yard.
“The Mars Yard is pushing the boundaries of remote access education. Online courses are changing the way students learn at university level and beyond. The Mars Yard is enabling us to work on and test what we think might be the next big step in learning – something entirely different from online courses and aimed at transforming teaching and learning in the classroom.
“We are using the Mars Yard as a context for science and maths learning – in other words, inspiration through exploration.”
Visit the Mars Lab website
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