April 13, 2007

Red Oak Students’ Quest: Make Mars Model Home

By Elizabeth Ahlin

RED OAK, Iowa -- The specter of the Red Planet descends today on Red Oak Middle School.

The school's sixth-grade students have been busily erecting Marsville, a colony they designed to be habitable by humans in the harsh environment of Mars.

For one day, Marsville will be the home of 125 students as they demonstrate their knowledge of the planet. One of the things they know is that it gets chilly on Mars -- chillier, even, than western Iowa this April.

"It's really cold," said Zoey Baker, 11.

Zoey noted that winter temperatures on Mars can drop to 127 degrees below zero. "Really, really, really cold."

The students studied Mars as they developed life support systems based on the planet's conditions.

This week, they have been assembling their support systems on air and water supplies, food production, waste management, temperature control, recreation, transportation and communication.

Zoey and classmates Liz Dumler, 11, and Areale Gregory, 12, built a prototype of a food production system that could be used on Mars.

Their small group used a cereal box, duct tape, a paper towel tube, bubble wrap and various beans to showcase their ideas for producing food there.

The beans represent different grain crops and the bubble wrap was designed to trap heat. The paper towel tube represents an apple tree, which would provide sustenance and oxygen to the other crops.

The girls know that there might be problems growing crops. Though they marveled at the similarities between the soil on Earth and the soil on Mars, there is one tiny problem.

"Mars doesn't have humus," Zoey said.

As she explained it, humus is organic matter in the soil that provides nutrients for plants.

The students have learned quite a bit about Mars and Earth during their "Marsville: The Cosmic Village" project, with help from David Seilstad, a 4-H specialist with Iowa State University Extension.

The program was developed by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, which has headquarters in Alexandria, Va., and a support office in Kansas City, Mo. It's a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the educational spirit of the Challenger space shuttle mission.

Red Oak Middle School has been participating in the program for about 10 years.

Seilstad compared the students' enthusiasm for space exploration to that of the European explorers who arrived in North America.

"We have those that want to know what's on Mars and how we can understand it and possibly create additional places where we can dwell in the universe," Seilstad said. "It just makes you go 'Wow -- scientists of tomorrow? We're not hurting at all.'"

In previous years, the Mars habitats were square, plastic bubble houses connected by plastic tunnels.

Today, the Red Oak students will replicate that look, but the ideas for support systems are never the same year to year.

A group of students from Mary Carlson's sixth-grade class created an elaborate system to tap drinkable water from polar ice caps on Mars.

Their plan is to crush the ice, melt it in a solar-paneled container, treat the water they obtain and then place it in a heated holding tank.

"There are some of these kids that could work on the first manned mission to Mars by the time they graduate from college," Seilstad said.

Not all of the students expressed an interest in going to Mars, but in a few years, Seilstad might have a few takers.

"Yeah, it'd be fun," said Brandon Farnum, 12. "But I would want to bring lots of blankets for at night , 'cause it gets really cold."