Pleasant View students rescue Mars astronauts

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 4:36 PM
Journal/Kimberly Benedict
Jay Stutz, lead flight director from Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, helps third-graders Abigayle Gray, center, and Alaina Howard gather information for their space mission while middle school student Billy Broughton looks on. The students were participating in a simulated space mission provided through a grant.

The year is 2080. The location, the surface of Mars.

Two astronauts exploring the outer planets have lost all navigation systems and most of their communication systems and are stranded in space in desperate need of rescue.

The rescue mission’s success or failure rests in the hands of the astronauts at the Mars-based mission control, also known as 15 students from Pleasant View Elementary School.

This was the scenario given to Lisa Hancock’s class of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders Thursday as the class participated in Challenger Learning Center of Colorado’s e-Mission, “Moon, Mars and Beyond!” Due to a grant through a partnership with NASA, Hancock’s class was chosen to participate in the education program based in Colorado Springs. The grant allows Hancock’s class to participate in four e-missions.

“It’s great,” Hancock said. “It gives the kids a really unique hands-on experience.

The e-mission program is designed to “engage students with the power of math and science for solving real-life crises,” according to a statement from Challenger Learning Center.

Using 21st century technology, students interact with “Earth mission control” while they plan their missions.

“We’ve received a call from NASA and they need help with a problem,” said Commander Henry of the Challenger Center, speaking to students using web-based communication. “Your classroom has been chosen to help.”

Looking at the screen, it is easy for students to imagine they are speaking directly to mission control.

The students are assigned working groups based on the planets they will be exploring: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Each student is assigned a job. Cargo specialists are responsible for determining how much food, oxygen and water is needed for the rescue mission. Navigation specialists are tasked with plotting X and Y coordinates to determine lost astronauts’ location. Transmission specialists have the important task of deciphering messages sent from the disabled spacecraft.

“It is a great program,” said Jay Stutz, lead flight director from the center, who was able to attend the class simulation Thursday. “It is hands-on education. They are doing the math and science and geography in a real-world situation. It is a fantastic way to get kids plugged in to science and math and really using space as a hook.”

The plan seemed to be working. Fourth-grader Gage Petrose, in charge of transmitting the class’s information back to mission control, said he enjoyed the e-mission.

“I think it is pretty exciting,” Petrose said. “We get to talk about space and figure out how to help.”

Challenger Learning Center of Colorado was established in 2002, one of 50 centers internationally. The centers were established to honor the memory of the astronauts who died on the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, Stutz said.

“The families of the astronauts wanted to establish a living memorial through a space science education center,” he said. “We offer many different programs for kids to learn more about space and science.”

Along with the e-missions, which are geared to rural schools, the center also offers simulator exercises in Colorado Springs. Teachers must attend a training in preparation for the missions and provide their students with curriculum to prepare them for the mission.

“We had specific packets on the simulation situation and information on inner and outer planets and statistics,” Hancock said. “We’ve been preparing for about a month.”

Mark Knox, information technology director for the district, said advances in technology make it possible for students to participate in unique programs such as the Challenger Center e-missions.

“We are starting to see more and more teachers utilize web communications to enhance curriculum,” Knox said. “It is easy to set up and easy to use and is a huge benefit to learning.”

For the students at Pleasant View Elementary School, the program offered a rare glimpse into a world far beyond Southwest Colorado as students were able to explore space in the year 2080 without stepping outside their classroom.

On the Net: Challenger Learning Center of Colorado,

Reach Kimberly Benedict at