Science Magazine Prize Goes to Mars Research Project

When a group of middle-schoolers from a small rural town in northern California started following a research curriculum called the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), they had no idea that they could make a world-class scientific discovery. Instead of studying worksheets to learn science concepts, these students were conducting their own experiment using a camera orbiting Mars. They were active participants in exploration instead of just reading about it. As a result of their research efforts, a new cave was discovered on the flanks of a Martian volcano.

“Here are kids in middle school with the capability to discover something in real life,” said Sheri Klug Boonstra, director of the Arizona State University Mars Education Program and the formal education lead for NASA’s Mars Public Engagement Program. “Kids today want that kind of chance at something extraordinary.”

MSIP has shown its effectiveness as an engaging educational tool helping students to understand the nature of science through authentic research. Because of its success with secondary students of all ages and levels of preparation, MSIP has been chosen to win the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).

Students in Peoria, Arizona work together to receive and analyze a Mars image from the Mars Student Imaging Project. Credit: Arizona State University

Students in Peoria, Arizona work together to receive and analyze a Mars image from the Mars Student Imaging Project.
Credit: Arizona State University

Science’s IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about MSIP was published on 22 February.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” said editor-in-chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding laboratory modules promoting student inquiry to reach a wider audience. Each winning module will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to these valuable free resources.”

MSIP co-creators Klug Boonstra and Philip Christensen are passionate about science and science education. Klug Boonstra said she was always drawn to science growing up near Edwards Air Force base during an era when scientists and engineers were trying to break the sound barrier, and Voyager and the Viking mission were featured regularly on public television programs. Klug Boonstra pursued her love of science and went into teaching.

Christensen is the principal investigator for the Thermal Emission Imaging System, a camera that was selected for use on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter. Remembering that as a child he would have given anything to be able to take a picture of Mars, Christensen collaborated with Klug Boonstra to sell NASA on the idea of letting students write proposals to request certain photos be taken for their own research. It is partly the professional level of the approach that the students make to the NASA scientists that impressed Science magazine and resulted in the awarding of the IBI prize.

“Engagement with real scientists is what makes the Mars Student Imaging Project so valuable,” said Melissa McCartney, Science associate editor. “Students first have to write a proposal to request time on NASA instruments, indirectly interacting with the scientists, and then later on they have a chance to present their final project in a symposium with the scientists themselves.”

Surprisingly, the students’ instructors do not need to have specialized background in the sciences to use MSIP. This is especially helpful to elementary and middle-school teachers—MSIP is intended for students from grade 5 to early college—who often haven’t had the corresponding core curriculum.

“You don’t have to be a planetary geologist to be successful,” said Klug Boonstra. “We want teachers to feel completely comfortable responding to a student’s questions by saying, ‘That’s a great question. I have no idea what the answer is.’ The teacher doesn’t have to be a know-it-all.”

Seventh-graders in Cottonwood, California found the skylight in an underground Martian lava tube (center of the superimposed red square) while participating in MSIP. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Seventh-graders in Cottonwood, California found the skylight in an underground Martian lava tube (center of the superimposed red square) while participating in MSIP.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

In fact, a huge part of using MSIP is getting the students to formulate a research question that has not been answered. Often times, their questions break new ground in terms of exploring aspects of the planet Mars. Klug Boonstra says that today’s students, who are far more tech-savvy than previous generations, love knowing that they can do real research, rather than labs that are just repeats of work that has already been done. “They want to know that there are still things left for them to discover,” she said.

In 2010, the group of seventh-graders from Cottonwood, California discovered the previously unknown cave on Mars using MSIP. A number of high school teams have participated in technical conferences based on their MSIP research, and others have published technical papers.

Among the successful young researchers were students representing all levels of academic prowess, from the gifted to students who were struggling with all aspects of school, Klug Boonstra said. One ninth-grader student who competed for and won a chance to participate in a technical conference had previously been flunking earth science, she said. “The teacher was flabbergasted.”

Klug Boonstra hopes that winning the IBI and having an essay in Science magazine will lend support to her own conviction that “it is imperative for students to have the kinds of experiences that MSIP provides.”

“This in an immersive project with incredible benefits in terms of the students’ understanding of science and the process of science,” she said. “For us, as science educators, this opportunity to be in Science is the ultimate. We get to advertise the fact that teachers can take advantage of this.”

Read the essay, “Mars Student Imaging Project: Real Research by Secondary Students,” by Sheri Klug Boonstra and Philip Christensen.

Learn more about the Mars Student Imaging Project.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.