St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School student Kristina Schiffman walks through a tunnel in a Mars habitat built from plastic and duct tape during the Mission to Mars event at Weber State University in Ogden on Dec. 4. She is one of 160 fifth-graders from St. Joseph, Holt Elementary in Clearfield and South Weber Elementary School to simulate living on Mars during the event, which incorporated science, technology, engineering, math — and lots of fun, students say.
Holt Elementary School fifth-grader Kylee Skidmore (right) gets help from Airman 1st Class Kerry Crandell, 649th Munitions Squadron, to tape together a section of a Mars habitat on Dec. 4 during Mission to Mars at WSU.
By Nancy Van Valkenburg
Standard-Examiner staff
December 6, 2012

OGDEN -- Stephanie Baltazar looked at the labeled, premeasured sheets of plastic she and her mission teammates had pieced together with duct tape.

The fifth-graders awaited the command decision that it was time to connect their plastic structures to box fans, to inflate their habitats for the Mission to Mars activity.

"I think this could work on Mars," said Stephanie, 11, from Clearfield's Holt Elementary School. "We built a habitat, and I think we'll be able to fit our team into it. It would work as shelter."

Stephanie was one of 160 fifth-graders to attend Mission to Mars, an educational event held Dec. 4 in the Shepherd Union Ballrooms at Weber State University. Weber State students and Airmen from Hill Air Force Base volunteered to guide and assist the students, from Holt and from Ogden's St. Joseph Catholic and South Weber elementary schools.

"The goal is to inspire students from a young age to study science, technology, engineering and math, the STEM subjects, and for the kids to have fun," said Rainie Ingram, recruiter for WSU's College of Applied Science and Technology.

"These students are at an age where they start to think about what they want to study in junior high and high school. It's especially important for the girls, because of the stereotype that girls aren't good in math and science. It's good to catch them before the social pressures do."

Deborah Roach is the STEM Outreach director at Hill Air Force Base.

"The kids started preparing for this in September," she said. "It raises interest in STEM subjects and gets kids thinking about what they want to be in the future. This is a hands-on, real application of the sciences, and they can see the result."

Each team of students selected an issue for classroom study, from choices that included life support, transportation, food, recreation and shelter. Students worked together to solve the problems they anticipated facing on a Mars outpost.

They cut their plastic into required dimensions for an inflatable structure, and they packed a meal of space rations from an approved list that included apple slices, rolls and yogurt packaged in a tube.

Once on Mars (the ballroom version), three student groups, usually from different schools, were assigned each of the 10 habitat stations. The groups cooperated to assemble their structure with tape.

Students also practiced the skit or song they had created as their space "saga," the story of their Martian adventure.

Groups also arrived with mock-ups of machines that would solve their problems in an inhospitable environment.

Kaleb Bowles, of Holt, wore a "gas mask" intended to provide safe air on Mars to the wearer. Components included a scuba mask, a backpack made of a box covered with tin foil, a space inside for oxygen-producing plants and a gauge that -- if it weren't made of crayon tinted paper -- might indicate remaining power levels.

Kaleb's team saga song, he said, ended with the lyrics: "We live in fame or go down in flame. Nothing can stop us now."

"It's a great experience," said Justin Rague, a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Elementary School.

"It teaches them to work as part of a community. With all the measuring they had to do, it fits right in with math core education. They learned to take music and create songs that reflect their own personalties and creativity. And it helps them start envisioning themselves doing work in careers they may not have considered before." Stephanie said that is true for her. "I didn't know much about it before, but I might like to be an engineer and maybe work in space travel."

Teammate MyKayla Belliston, 10, and also from Holt Elementary, was less convinced.

"I like science, at least more than I used to," she said. "I learned that you can do experiments and that, if we don't work together, things won't work. It was fun, but I want to be either a schoolteacher or a pet groomer when I grow up."

Jordyn Miller, 11, from Holt, said being creative made learning more fun.

"It helped us learn fast and good, and made me like science more," he said.

"I liked all the plastic and tape, and that the work was creative. This has been the best field trip of my life, so far."