Students take off for Mars in 25th annual AFRLNM mission

Student inflate habitats during the 2019 Mission to Mars at the Albuquerque Convention Center May 10. The Air Force Research Laboratory New Mexico’s STEM Outreach branch put on the mission, with more than 1,300 fifth-grade students from schools across the Albuquerque area and New Mexico taking part in the massive science and engineering experiment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jim Fisher)
May 10, 2019

The Air Force Research Laboratory New Mexico’s STEM Outreach branch launched another mission to Mars May 10 at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

More than 1,300 fifth-grade students from schools across the Albuquerque area and New Mexico took part in the massive science and engineering experiment, according to Ronda Cole, AFRLNM STEM Outreach.

“Today is our twenty-fifth annual Mission to Mars link-up day,” Cole said. “This is the culmination of the work of fifth-grade students who have been planning a simulated trip to Mars—to colonize Mars—and build a settlement so that scientists can do research there.”

Cole explained that each class was tasked with building a habitat and selecting from one of eight life support systems to design and develop and sustain life in the colony. Providing food, air and water was the challenge students were faced with as they erected their habitats across the acres of floor in the Convention Center East Building.

Tamara Torres brought her 25 students from Osuna Elementary.

“It’s a lot to do but it all came together somehow,” Torres said, explaining that the class undertook the project in January and had been working in the classroom to prepare for the mission. “We have one habitat, one life support system, and I am super impressed with the way they’ve handled it. Everything is very hands-on and they just dove right in.”

The STEM Outreach branch has designed the program to be integrated with STEM learning already taking place in the classroom and to help bring it to life, Cole explained.

“I think it’s just amazing that teachers are willing to go above and beyond like this and it’s a great opportunity to apply concepts they are learning in the classroom in a context so that the math and science they are learning has meaning—they have a framework to attach it to,” Cole said.

AFRLNM also brings scientists and engineers to the mission, giving students a chance to make connections with people working in STEM fields, and the research and development sector in Albuquerque.

“Students are getting to really interact with a technical expert,” Cole said. “That helps to make that career connection. Plus, these are careers that are happening in our own back yard. You don’t have to move away to another state to find a career where you could do something exciting like this.”

Osuna students C.J. Melvin, 10, and Lucy Tyroler, 11, enjoyed the mission, especially building the habitat.

“Our design was to have a rover to travel to the polar ice caps and take pieces of the ice and put them in a storage container and melt the ice to provide water for the colony,” Melvin said. Tyroler affirmed that the experience enhanced their enthusiasm for science.

“I just thought it was fun,” she said.

Their teacher, Ms. Torres, agreed.

“I’m super impressed with the organization and looking forward to doing it again next year,” Torres said.