For Middle-School-Age Girls at the Austin
Expanding Your Horizons Conference
Expanding Your Horizons in Science and Mathematics is the flagship program of the national Math/Science Network that exists to encourage girls into scientific and technical fields. Research shows that if the girls are going to lose their interest in such technical fields, it occurs during the middle school years when they are subjected to more pressures involving gender issues. So it is important to reach this audience at that critical time. Such is the goal of the nationwide Expanding Your Horizons conferences. Girls come from all over to experience hands-on workshops given by local women who have chosen to make careers in these technical fields. There are no males or parents allowed in the classrooms while the workshops are conducted, so the girls are free to experience traditionally male-dominated disciplines under the guidance of a female instructor and without the influences of gender bias, peer-pressure, or parental pressures.
We presented a workshop entitled "Mars, Here We Come" where the goals were to outline some of the considerations of space exploration in general and specifically the continual exploration of Mars. We wanted to show the girls that not only is space and planetary exploration "cool," but it is important and a natural progression of human existence and that it involves people in a variety of disciplines, some of which they may not have considered before.
We introduced ourselves and gave a brief overview of the NMB contest and the Mars Exploration Program. Then we started with a broad discussion of "who are explorers" trying to get the girls to recognize that we all are explorers. We then moved on to "why do we explore" and aspects of human nature that compel us to do so. From there we talked briefly about why we should explore space and specifically Mars. We discussed how we can use what we learn from Mars to refine and enhance what we know about our own planet Earth and our own existence in the Universe.
We divided the girls up into "missions" and within each mission, the girls had individual jobs. Each mission contained a vehicle engineer, an exobiologist, a geologist, a human colonization specialist, and an Earth-Mars liaison. The vehicle engineers had to design a rover to complete specific tasks given a set of conditions and materials. The human colonization specialists had to design a habitat to support long-term cohabitation on Mars. The geologists learned how to take core samples and analyze the "Mars rocks" they were given (a variety of candy bars which they dissected and tried to determine how they were formed). The exobiologists learned how to tell whether there was life in any of the three "Martian soil samples" they were given. One had baking powder, one had salt, and another had active yeast; there were other ingredients common to the three samples. Room temperature sugar water was added to each sample and they determined which was "alive" and why. And finally, the Earth-Mars liaisons were charged with developing a calendar and appropriate timekeeping procedures for those who will stay long-term (maybe live their entire lives) on this planet whose day is about the same length as Earth's but whose year is almost twice as long. They also had to design travel brochures to try and convince people that they should come to Mars for a visit (or just move there!).
Once each individual job was completed, the girls rejoined their missions and shared their experiences with the rest of the mission team. They discussed what kinds of things we must worry about when designing a mission to Mars and began to realize what an undertaking it really is, how much work goes into it, and that it's not all engineers and astronauts: you need biologists, chemists, accountants, cartographers, videographers, journalists, and any number of other professionals that wouldn't typically be associated with space or astronomy.
We filmed selected segments of each of the four identical workshops we gave and have produced this segment to give folks an idea of what went on.
Samples of our workshop materials are available here.
Contact the longhorns in space at firstname.lastname@example.org