Journey To  Mars: Exploring Space From The Classroom
by Stephanie Stevenson • Douglas Anderson School for the Arts • Jacksonville, Florida 
Dot Dickinson • Episcopal High School • Baton Rouge, Louisiana
MultiMedia Schools • January/February 2000

“Space—the final frontier. This is the journey of the Starship Enterprise ...”

Who has not heard this call to discovery? Space continues to be a final frontier with NASA
scientists pioneering the technology for human exploration (

Just as early European explorers brought back news of worlds across the ocean, NASA technology sends images of worlds in our universe to Earthlings’ computer desktops. Urged on by pictures and stories from NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) explorer missions, today’s desktop observers dream of visiting the worlds in our solar system. But how do we make the connection from stars and space to classroom learning happen? For me, this has been its own voyage of discovery that led me from my classroom in Florida to Montana State University and NASA and back!

Figure 1
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While learning to motivate at-risk students I tried many different strategies. I discovered that the strategies that worked best were ones that empowered students to “own” the lessons. Computers, telecommunications, and scientific image data provide the tools and visuals necessary for my students to feel successful. By using computers for writing and creating graphs, many of the problems that at-risk students have with producing organized products are overcome. Using telecommunications to access relevant information, experts in content areas, and other online classrooms added excitement to the topics we studied. Through funding from the TRDA (Technological Research and Development Authority, for the Florida State University Florida EXPLORES! Program, my classroom got a weather satellite ground station, which provided a jumpstart for using image visualization tools in my classroom (see Figure 1). My involvement in the Network Montana Project allowed my students to co-create Earth Space Science (ESS) curriculum materials. Later in the project I was asked to become the co-developer for an online ESS graduate course for NTEN—the National Teacher Enhancement Network. The NTEN course is still available at (see Figure 2). As a result of these activities, I went to work for Montana State University (MSU) as the education director for the NASA CERES (Center for Educational Resources) Project. In this capacity I oversaw and developed activities such as MarsQuest.

Figure 2
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How Does This Work Back Here on Earth?
One eighth grade team of teachers and students at Episcopal Middle School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, turned their dreams of visiting other worlds into learning by planning Mars Vacation Travel Guides as a CERES pilot classroom. Instead of H. G. Wells’ plot of Martians taking over Earth, EMS eighth graders promote Earthlings building the Martian tourist economy. Science teacher Dot Dickinson, in collaboration with English, French, and Latin teachers, helped students to research not only the science of Mars, but also Earth’s traditions pertaining to Mars. Mrs. Dickinson states, “In 30 or 40 years it will be possible for people to live on Mars. Recent scientific discoveries and NASA missions support that possibility. In 1996, scientists discovered a meteorite from Mars that contained what some scientists believe to be fossils of ancient microbes. In 1997, the Mars Pathfinder mission sent back pictures of volcanoes and other features of the planet’s surface. Other missions have collected pictures and samples from Mars to help scientists understand the climate, geology, and history of the planet.” Dickinson reasons that students are motivated to travel to far-off places, so what better way to learn to do authentic research than to research information on the Martian environment? Not only do students research the Martian environment, but also the history, cultural myths, time to travel to the planet, travel costs, activities during travel, and housing on the planet for a project called MarsQuest.

MarsQuest is one of three Webquests designed by the NASA CERES Project ( (see Figure 3) to model ways in which to use NASA scientific image data to stimulate and enhance student learning. Through funding from NASA, faculty at MSU and classroom teachers from across the nation developed an extensive library of online and interactive K-12 science education materials for teaching astronomy. Closely aligned with the NRC National Science Education Standards (NSES), these Web-based lessons make maximum use of exciting online NASA resources, data, and images, fulfilling NASA’s goals for bringing NASA-based electronic resources and data to classrooms. Student-driven inquiry activities such as MarsQuest are the foundation of CERES online educational materials. These activities encourage students to explore NASA data to construct first-hand knowledge about the astronomical universe. The focus of the CERES project is to positively promote the National Science Education Standards.

Figure 3
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CERES’s second task was to develop for K-12 teachers two graduate-level courses in space science and astronomy to be delivered over the Internet. The first course, “Comparative Planetology: Establishing a Virtual Presence in the Solar System,” focuses on NSES content standards in astronomy for grades K-8, while the second, “Studying the Universe with Space Observatories,” addresses the standards for students in grades 9-12. Both of these courses are currently available at

These asynchronous computer-mediated courses use a robust combination of World Wide Web resources and conferencing software for participant interactions. MSU has acquired wide experience in providing such distance-delivered academic offerings to science teachers in the setting of a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported project, NTEN ( Since 1993, NTEN has developed and delivered over 40 courses, reaching more than 2,000 science teachers across the U.S. NTEN courses are developed and taught by teams of scientists, high-school teachers, and science educators. Participants use a personal computer and modem to connect to their classes, interacting with each other and with the instructor through conferencing software that allows for both structured public discussions and private messaging.

Teachers need opportunities for highly specialized coursework that treats not only the science content, but also the classroom context for the application of new concepts. This combination of factors means that many science teachers are not able to access appropriate professional development in person. This training is not always available locally. The Internet, however, is dramatically changing this picture. Computer-mediated communication and especially asynchronous conferencing allow classes to be organized and to function productively even though the participants and instructor(s) are widely separated, never meet face-to-face, and have different schedules. In recent years it has become clear that busy classroom teachers want—and will enroll in—professional development coursework if it is tailored to their needs and is electronically accessible from their home or workplace.

How do students respond to materials such as MarsQuest?
Meghan O’Leary, an eighth grader in Mrs. Dickinson’s class, makes this report:

Mars Quest was a group project done in PowerPoint. Our assignment was to create a slide show that provided travel guidance to interplanetary travels. We had to include information about Mars such as the climate, geography, number of moons, size, etc. We also had to include travel information, cost (for a trip to Mars), activities, accommodations, pictures, and sounds. A bibliography was required of the books and resources we used to find our information. We used our imagination to create a “travel guide to Mars.” We came up with prices and traveling dates according the weather of Mars. To complete the assignment we divided into five team roles that had specific jobs. The Meteorologist was in charge of learning about the weather and seasons of Mars. The Geologist had to provide information about the Martian soil and landforms. The Mission specialist provided insight into NASA’s exploratory missions to Mars. The Reporter was in charge of keeping up to date with all the important NASA press releases about Mars. The Historian’s job was to find pictures and information about how Earthlings saw Mars before telescopes and space travel. The MarsQuest was a great way to learn more about Mars and using the Internet for research. It was fun planning the future and creating a travel guide with no limitations, because it’s never been done before.

Quotes from students in an article in the Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, can be found at

How did Mrs. Dickinson facilitate this project in her eighth grade science classroom?

Managing an online activity in the classroom involves an instructional design different from the traditional modes of lesson planning. It is a truly collaborative effort involving teachers from other disciplines as well as the support of library/media specialists and technology coordinators. Team meetings provided an opportunity for teachers to brainstorm ideas to use in their classes. The English teacher required students to write poetry about Mars and make a poster or three-dimensional display about the poems. The Latin teacher taught planetary nomenclature and had the class study the works of Robert McCall, an artist who created historical paintings of the American space program. In this type of learning, the teacher becomes the facilitator, and the emphasis is student-centered rather than teacher-centered. The French teacher required students to translate their projects into the French language. The science teacher facilitated the MarsQuest project itself.

The bulk of the teacher’s work takes place before the students begin to work. Students must have Internet access and possess the expertise to navigate the Web and to use PowerPoint. At EMS students take a 1-year course to acquire these skills.

Since MarsQuest is a research-oriented project, students must learn to cite references properly, as an important part of the research process is giving credit to resources used. The library/media specialist provided this information.

Other tools were developed for MarsQuest. First, each student kept a daily log. It was a record of progress and a place to interact with the teacher. In one section of the log students could write about problems they had with their work each day. The log became an interactive, problem-solving tool between the teacher and the student. (See the OII sites:,,,

Another useful form enabled students to take notes as they viewed Internet resources. The form sheet included a place for students to write the bibliographic information needed to cite the reference properly.

Evaluating student work was accomplished with the aid of a checklist of essential components of the assignment. This rubric took the subjectivity out of the grading process. Points were assigned to various aspects of the project. Total points determined the letter grade for each project. Each person in the group received the same grade.

How We Journeyed to Mars from Our Classroom Desks
The following synopsis shows how teachers worked together to integrate this activity across the discipline.

In Science Class:
  1. Viewed A Journey to Mars, Scientific American Frontier and answered questions after viewing
  2. Received instructions from the school librarian on citing internet references.
  3. Students divided into groups. Each group produced a travel brochure or a PowerPoint presentation on Mars travel.
  4. Students completed a daily log sheet outlining their progress on the project.
  5. Projects were presented to the class. Students received two grades: 10 points for daily participation and 20 points for the final presentation (30 point total).
  6. Created a Web page showcasing the project.
In English Class:
  1. Students composed two poems about Mars
  2. Poetry was illustrated on a poster, shadow box, or mobile.
  3. Poetry projects were displayed on middle school bulletin boards.
  4. Some of the best poems were posted on the Web page.
In Latin Class:
  1. Viewed slides of NASA artisit Robert McCall and discussed the use of classical motifs in the art.
  2. Studied the Gazetteer of the International Astronomical Union.
  3. Created an appropriate Latin Motto for the Mars travel company.
  4. Reviewed classical myths associated with the god Mars/Ares
In French Class:
  1. Students translated PowerPoint and travel guides into French.  These will be shared with our sister school in Pointoise, France this Spring.
In the Community:
  1. The school's public relations person invited the Teen page editor from the city newspaper, The Advocate, to attend some of our classes.  A page long article appeared on the Teen page on February 13.  This page can be viewed at  (Choose teen stuff, choose teen news, choose Feb. 13.)
For further information, contact Mrs. Dot Dickinson at

About the authors: Stephanie Stevenson is the earth space science teacher/technology coordinator at the Douglas Anderson School of the Performing Arts, 2445 San Diego Road, Jacksonville, FL 32207; phone: 904/346-5620, ext. 148; fax: 904/346-5636; e-mail: Dot Dickinson is a middle school science teacher and grade level coordinator at Episcopal High School, 3200 Woodland Ridge Boulevard, Baton Rouge, LA 70816; phone: 225/753-3181, ext. 324; e-mail:

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