Kenai Middle School students, from left, Olivia Pfeifer, Jacob Gilman and Eve Ferguson, provide mission control support to their Soldotna Middle School colleagues in the Mars transport vehicle during a mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai on March 11.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
Time and millions of miles seemed to fly by for Kenai and Soldotna middle school students March 11 at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.
In the course of one school day, students flew a mission to Mars, collected and analyzed planetary samples and relieved the previous crew stationed at Mars Control after a two-year stint at the planet.
"That means I'm 15 years old," said Dakota Prather, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Soldotna middle.
In the morning session Kenai students manned mission control, providing navigation, research, flight direction, life support and other vital services to the Soldotna crew aboard the Mars Transport Vehicle, who were dealing with everything from maintaining breathable air to avoiding asteroids.
At midday students swapped roles after being temporarily brought back to Earth by a pizza lunch.
"I thought you were going to give us dried-up little packets," Dakota said. Challenger staff said they did have freeze-dried "astronaut" ice cream on the premises.
"Oh, I've tried that, that's gross," said Vanessa Anderson, a Kenai Middle eighth-grader.
Learning extended well beyond culinary preferences. The day was packed with literally out-of-this world math and science lessons.
"Radiation matters," Vanessa said, succinctly summing up the most important thing she said she'd learned that day.
There also were down-to-earth concepts, like teamwork.
Dakota and Heath Healey, another Soldotna Middle seventh-grader, teamed up to operate the shuttle's robotic arms. Their biggest lesson was things aren't always as easy as they look.
"Every, like, millisecond they'd lock up," Dakota said." It was way harder than a video game."
Heath was there to lend a hand, if not moral support. "Watching him drop everything," was Heath's vote for the most memorable part of the day.
The Kenai Middle students participated by lottery. Any seventh- or eighth-grade science student who wanted to participate put their names in a hat for the field trip. At Soldotna Middle, 12 students were picked from two study skills programs.
"Each (teacher) picked six students who made significant improvements in academics over last quarter," said Patty Truesdell, Title VII teacher at Soldotna Middle.
Truesdell said she was pleased with how well the mission went. The hands-on environment kept students from spacing out.
"Oh they loved it," she said. "I just can't believe what a good trip it was. I was amazed at how well they worked in this setting. I think it proves the old adage that there's different kinds of learners."
Jenny Neyman is the communication specialist at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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