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A Trip to Mars: Playing Pretend Could Get Kids Interested in STEM

March 11, 2016
Though it would be unreasonable to send students on a field trip to space, a new STEM academy at Westminster College creates an imaginary scenario where kids are preparing to take a trip to Mars.

In a commentary published at the end of last year, Machine Design senior editor Stephen Mraz proposed that outer space become an integral part of STEM education. He claims that presenting kids with opportunities to explore space technologies (such as those needed for colonizing Mars or the moon) would boost kids’ interest in general engineering, math, and science.

Though it would require extensive funding to send students on a field trip to the moon (think Magic School Bus), a new STEM academy at Westminster College creates an imaginary scenario where kids are preparing to take a trip to Mars. Based off concepts in the book and movie, The Martian, it explores a range of technologies and applications that would be necessary to inhabit the red planet.

The STEM academy will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., June 27-30, when Mars is in its prime position for viewing. Led by Westminster scientists and professors, students will perform hands-on experiments during the day and look out at their hypothetical destination at night. The class will also give students an opportunity to learn in a college setting with advanced resources.

The first segment in the four-day session will teach how to analyze the microbiology of soil. They will discuss the importance of microbes in vegetation and their pivotal role in the nitrogen cycle.

Next, they will explore the mechanisms of photovoltaics. Professors will show them how to apply testing conditions that maximize energy production. Finally, they will create their own working dye-sensitized solar cell.

At night, the kids will learn stargazing skills in the Planetarium Theater and Observatory. They will examine the motion of planets and stars, and the professors will offer a discourse on the challenges of surviving on Mars. In addition, they will investigate the thermodynamics and kinetics of heat flow associated with temperature regulation.

The class is open to the first 30 students who register, and is aimed at students entering grades 9 and 10. The class costs $250 for the week. Students who qualify for financial aid should contact Dr. Peter Smith, event coordinator and professor and chair of chemistry, at (724) 946-7299 or [email protected]. Registration is available at

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