Living on Mars? Virtual STEAM competition challenges children to shoot for stars

August 25, 2021 Cranberry Living


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Len Karch, left, is dressed as a human being carried by an alien from outer space at the Mars New Year celebration in 2019. Submitted photo

Children with a passion for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) once again have the chance to answer big questions this year as part of the Mars STEAM Challenge, a regularly included component of the Mars New Year festival.

Students entering the competition receive a deceptively simple prompt: You and 99 other Earthlings are sent to live on Mars. Imagine one problem, challenge or need you might face on your new planet, and try to solve it using STEAM.

While many aspects of the competition have undergone changes and expansions over time, that premise has remained the same, said Mars New Year board member and STEAM Challenge chair Karrie Snider.

“This has been our theme since the beginning of the challenge, and that has not changed,” Snider said. “We want students to be really creative, to think outside of the box and try and use those large ideas in something that is realistic.”

Gone virtual

So what is new about the challenge this year? The competition has gone virtual, and opened up its registration to all students across the United States. As a result, participation nearly doubled.

Along with many applications from students at Mars School District, which Snider credits with increasing student participation, the contest has gotten interest from students in California, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana and more.

The competition received 12 submitted projects from third- and fourth-grade students, seven from fifth- and sixth-graders and 19 from seventh- and eighth-graders for a total of 38 participants. Upward of 70 students expressed early interest in the challenge.

“We really took this from a very small regional, in -person science fair to a nationwide virtual challenge,” she said. “The projects in the past have been traditional in-person science projects. Kids would use poster board and models. Now, they’re still doing that somewhat, but they’re using different programs that they’ve used in school, like voice-over, PowerPoint and videos, walking through their projects.”

Despite the new addition of more online components to the competition, Snider says it hasn’t been an obstacle to participation, even for younger students.

“The extent to which these students are tech- savvy is impressive. They could run circles around all of us,” she said. “It waylays a lot of fears that taking this online was going to not be successful. (Instead)it has been very successful.”

NASA connection

Another new component this year: the projects will be judged by a team of NASA representatives, and finalists will have a chance to interact with them on a Zoom call.

“You’re having contact and interacting with things you might never be able to otherwise,” Snider said. “We’re thrilled that the folks at NASA are excited about this. We are hoping we get a little bit of everyone from all stages.”

Judges will include Planetary Science Division program executives Carolyn Mercer and Bill Knopf, Chief Technologist Dr. Douglas Terrier, Deputy Director for the Mars Exploration Program Tiffany M. Morgan, Mars Public Engagement Specialist Sarah Marcotte, Planetary Science Division program scientists Dr. Michael S. Kelley and Thomas P. Wagner, SpaceX Environmental Health and Safety Specialist Steve Grathwohl and Fairmont State University professor Dr. Keisha Kibler.

All in on outer space

The STEAM challenge is planning to expand, and will host another STEAM challenge for grades 9-12 that begins in the winter in collaboration with Harrisburg University. The mission will still stay the same, but with some added components for older kids.

“This is only growing and changing and getting better, and is more in line with what we’re doing with Mars New Year overall, and with focusing on STEAM education for everyone,” Snider said. “For people who have an interest in STEAM or who don’t, there’s so much information online to disseminate, and Mars New Year provides an opportunity.”

Snider hopes that the challenge will continue to develop moving forward. She says that the competition will likely never go back to a solely in-person format. Having a major component that is virtual is a feature that will persist, but there might be branch-off portions in-person.

Snider envisions monitors and video calls being set up for remote students who can’t make it to the festival in the future.

“We’re really trying to focus on making this better for students to do this,” Snider said. “A lot is going to happen with us in the future. As we get more collaborations with different groups, the STEAM challenge will change. This is about them. This is about helping them gain skills for the future.”

Butler Eagle
Butler Eagle
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