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," says 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).
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 will be published on February 22.
"Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science," says 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 says 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 regularly featured 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," says 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," says 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."
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 says.
In 2010, the group of seventh-graders from Cottonwood, Calif., 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 says. One ninth-grader student who competed for and won a chance to participate in a technical conference had previously been flunking earth science, she says. "The teacher was flabbergasted," Klug Boonstra says.
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 says. "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."
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes 261 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.