How Teaching is Like Landing on Mars

While NASA has been preparing for the Curiosity rover to land on Mars, they have also been launching a mission closer to home—teaching middle school students. To some people it's equally uncharted territory. Since 2009, scientists from NASA have helped Citizen Schools students learn about Mars- its soil, its atmosphere, its weather and its history. In this apprenticeship kids are able to experience the life of an astronaut. They take a journey through the very same things that NASA astronauts are exploring with the Curiosity.  While the Curiosity searches for potential life on Mars, teens go a step further and actually plan a human settlement on the planet. The two missions, although 352 million miles apart, are more similar than you think. You might be surprised why…

  1. Failing is the first step. Almost two-thirds of the missions to Mars have failed before completion. It’s not a high success rate, and yet NASA spends billions of dollars to try again and again. It takes some teachers years to get results with their students, and sometimes they only reach a few. You might not be the best teacher at first, but lessons can be learned from every mission. You might fail every day, but eventually you’ll land on both feet.
  2. Keeping your hands to yourself won’t work. For the next two years the Curiosity will be digging, poking and prodding through the dirt of Mars to see if the soil could have ever supported life. Pictures of the surface might be beautiful, but you need to get underneath to make discoveries. Kids won't respond to just the “big picture” overview of a topic. It's when they go to a NASA control room and actually put on a space suit that science becomes cool to them.  Don’t just show your students the pictures. Let them touch, smell, feel and taste the material. You’ll both understand it better.
  3. Landing is the hardest, most terrifying part. NASA called the landing of the Curiosity “7 minutes of terror.”  During those short 7 minutes the one ton rover had to slow down from 13,000 mph to 2 mph. Starting something brand new can be paralyzing. Teaching is no exception. It’s not always clear what to expect on the first day, and a group of 15 adolescents can be more intimidating than meeting a Martian. Once you get through the first day, the rest becomes easy and even fun.

While NASA goes deep into the surface of Mars, they will continue their mission here on Earth, helping to close the opportunity gap for low-income middle school students in New Mexico. This fall, NASA will collect data on hurricane formation and evolution while teaching young apprentices to do the same. Together they will make great discoveries, despite the complexity and occasional terror they may face.

It’s interesting that the two rovers currently roaming the surface of Mars are Curiosity and Opportunity. Kids are curious to explore, to learn and to dream. But not all of them are given the opportunity to do so. You can give them the opportunity this fall by teaching an apprenticeship. You just might make the next successful landing.