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Large maps of Mars, moon en route to school district

Students will be able to play on the giant vinyl maps, drive robots on them and learn more about STEM topics.

Mars Area School District students may soon walk on the Red Planet — or, rather, a map of it.

The Mars Borough Council and Mars School District arranged with the Aldrin Family Foundation to acquire several giant Mars maps and giant moon maps from the foundation in time for the upcoming Mars New Year Festival.

The floor maps are made of vinyl and show the topography and surface of Mars and earth's moon, along with scientific facts and education materials.

The borough plans to acquire two of each vinyl map, in small (13.5 feet by 6 feet) and medium (23.5 feet by 10.5 feet) sizes, and intends to unveil them at the festival before they are given to the Mars school district.

“It's a way to have kids climbing around on the map and to use it to educate,” Mayor Gregg Hartung said. “It's a versatile tool to inspire kids to learn all that they can about the moon and Mars.”

Hartung says that the borough is in the process of putting together a memorandum of understanding between Mars Area School District, the Mars New Year Committee, Carnegie Mellon University and the Aldrin Family Foundation to hash out the details of how the maps will be acquired, funded and used in Mars.

The goal is for the memorandum and arrangements to be finished later in July, so that the maps will be ready for the Mars New Year celebration Aug. 27 and 28.

Everybody's head is “spinning,” Hartung said. “Teachers are especially excited.”

Among those excited teachers is Mars Area School District science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) educator Colleen Hinrichsen, who has been working with the borough and the Aldrin Family Foundation to arrange for the maps' arrival.Hinrichsen plans to use the maps with her STEAM classes across grades two through six, and said that spreading the use of the maps across multiple grade levels will get a wider age range of children interested.“In the elementary grades, one of the things I notice is you have some students who are your little space buffs: they can tell you a million facts,” Hinrichsen said. “But there's other students who haven't really been exposed to it — they don't realize there's more to space than just stats and rockets.“If you wait till students are in sixth grade (to show them space material), you already have students who have pushed it aside as something they're not into.”Hinrichsen also hopes to connect the maps to multiple different subjects, such as history and art, and use them as a sort of “learning hub” where multiple stories can connect.“Things by themselves are so abstract. It would help for them to relate everything to Earth,” she said. “Honestly, the kids seeing these maps of Mars might help them understand maps of Earth better.”

Preliminary discussions with the foundation would make Mars school district into a “hub school” that would lend out Mars and moon maps to other school districts in western Pennsylvania and as far as West Virginia and Ohio in future years.“This is going to be something that the school district is going to have and be the custodians of for the future, and it's going to be terrific at the festival,” said Mars New Year chairman Mike Harvey. “These maps are massive.”Funding is still being worked out as part of the memorandum of understanding, but Mars New Year consultant on space and education John Donehoo feels confident that it won't be a barrier to acquiring the maps.“We'll be able to find money, either in the form of grants or corporate sponsorships or otherwise,” Donehoo said. “(The Aldrin Foundation) has done this before. Having that experience and insight will be really helpful as we look for finding the money as well as some more ongoing money, from a program standpoint, for how we will make it sustainable and manageable.”

Hartung, the Mars New Year team, and the Mars school district met with Jim Christensen, executive director of the Aldrin Family Foundation's ShareSpace Education program. The group explored Mars borough, and Christensen plans to come back himself with the maps for the Mars New Year Festival to demonstrate to children.“The first step for us was meeting (with people in Mars) and forming some relationships, and we found on both sides that people really wanted to do good things for the purpose of impacting students in a positive way,” Christensen said.The Aldrin Family Foundation's goal is to draw interest from students to science, technology, engineering, the arts and math. The maps are designed to make space more understandable to children. Students can walk and play on the maps, drive robots on them, and participate in educational activities to point out interesting parts of the landscape.“We do the map because it's hard for kids to conceptualize Mars, because it's so incredibly far away,” he said. “We're trying to inspire the next generation of space explorers, but the truth is we're trying to inspire kids in STEAM; there's this curiosity to be fed.”Christensen said the maps are usually a big hit with everyone, and the goal is to engage as many people as possible, even those who aren't as interested in math.“A lot of times, people just get really excited about it,” Christensen said. “People walk in and look at the map, and their mouths drop open.”Christensen is excited for the Aldrin foundation to work with Mars to bring the maps to Mars New Year.“I keep telling people that I just came back from Mars, and laughing about it,” he said. “We are really excited about the idea of helping kids understand about the moon and Mars.”

Mars Robotics Association coach Jeff Beckstead plans to make the maps a part of the robotics group's “Robotics Village” event at the Mars New Year Festival, during which teams of youths from Ohio, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania are invited to show off their robotics projects.“The thinking is, we'll incorporate the maps and the robots, and have kids able to drive the robots on Mars on the map, sort of duplicating what the Mars rovers Curiosity and Perseverance do,” Beckstead said.Beckstead plans to coordinate with the Aldrin Family Foundation to make sure the robots won't damage the map, even though the maps are sturdy and built for children to walk and play on.Visitors will be able to drive and interact with the robots at the festival, and the Mars Robotics Association is even planning to set up several robots with soccer balls to play on the map.“This is our third Mars New Year Festival we've attended, and every year, we keep getting asked to make our portion bigger,” Beckstead said. “Outreach and education are a strong part of the goal for the students on our teams.”

Children can drive robots on the maps. Mars Robotics Association coach Jeff Beckstead plans to make the maps a part of the robotics group's “Robotics Village” event at the Mars New Year Festival.