Planetary Puzzle

Middle school students tackle Martian mystery — and learn to think like scientists


RCMS teacher Scott Davidson ponders the presentation Trevor Henson and Crystal Kubby put together.

RCMS teacher Scott Davidson ponders the presentation Trevor Henson and Crystal Kubby put together. |

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The “ah-ha” moment hung in the air.

The NASA scientist posed it to seven Rim Country Middle School (RCMS) students who had spent months searching photos of Mars for clues in a planetary mystery: Which came first — the solar system’s longest, deepest canyon or a giant sprouting of volcanoes?

They had just made a presentation steeped in frustration, with ample evidence to support either theory.

And that’s when scientist John Hill taught them how to think like scientists: “Could it be possible to turn the question on its head and ask the hypothesis differently?”

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Mars images from NASA

Using images from the spots indicated in the NASA photo the students were trying to determine which came first: A vast canyon or an outpouring of volcanoes. In the process, they discovered how science works.

Hill, a mission planner from the Mars Imaging Project (MIP) on the Arizona State University (ASU) campus, posed that question while evaluating the student’s attempt to answer a fundamental question by studying pictures of overlapping volcanoes, craters, lava flows, erosion — and a canyon so immense that our own Grand Canyon would look like a trifling tributary.

The seventh-grade students from RCMS stood with open minds churning.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh crap!’” said Lindsey Wala.

“I thought all that work was for nothing,” said Shelby Ben-Shalom.

“We’re in trouble,” said Nate McMullen.

Soon, however, they learned they had nothing to fear. Science, not even geology, is set in stone.

“You asked a good question,” said Jessica Swan, another scientist from MIP also evaluating the students. “We could take the same question, come up with a different set of criteria, and have totally different answers.”

There came another “ah-ha” moment.

“I thought: this is a new way of thinking,” said Mitchell McGuire, as he grasped the creative, open-ended role of a good question in scientific discoveries.

“You can look at this from a different point of view,” said Trevor Henson.

“Interesting. I didn’t think that would be possible,” said Isaiah Skinner.

The question they sought to answer seemed simple enough: Which came first, a gigantic volcanic field or the six-mile-deep, 2,485-mile long Valles Marineris, the “Grand Canyon of Mars.” By contrast, our Grand Canyon is a mile deep and 277 miles long.

The determined and creative effort to answer that question ended up provoking deeper questions — and the startling discovery of how science really works.

These “ah-ha” moments did not come easily. The journey took months of preparation.

It started at the beginning of the school year when Scott Davidson’s seventh-grade class launched into creating a question (hypothesis) for the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), a challenging program created by NASA and ASU to teach kids how to think like scientists, using real planetary mysteries to teach.

For the past three years, Davidson has had his seventh-grade science class submit a proposal to MSIP. Each year, the program has accepted Davidson’s classes’ proposals.

“We’re always happy to have Scott and his class come,” said Sheri Klug Boonstra, the director of the Solar System Exploration Education Program at ASU.

The program challenges students to ask a good question, collect data, then suggest interpretations of that data to answer the question asked.

In short, MSIP aspires to give children a hands-on, student-driven experience of the scientific process.

“It’s not a canned activity,” said Klug Boonstra, “The kids know this is real.”

One seventh-grade class from a small school district in Northern California discovered a cave on Mars researchers did not know existed. The students moved the NASA scientists’ studies forward, said Klug Boonstra.

The RCMS classes ask a question about a geologic feature of Mars they would answer by analyzing images from the THEMIS (thermal emission imaging) camera.

The designer of the camera, Dr. Phil Christensen, is a Regent’s professor of geologic sciences and the director of the Mars Space Flight Facility at ASU. He recognized the need to plant a seed in the minds of young children to excite them about science. So, he partnered with Klug Boonstra, to create the MSIP program.

Since 2002, MSIP has touched 30,000 students from around the world.

“All of us (at MSIP) have been classroom teachers,” said Klug Boonstra.

MSIP offers distance learning and can tailor programs to work with as little as seven students to as many as 400 in a space camp or a whole grade level in a school district.

The ASU site does the teacher training for all of the Mars missions, so educating students is a natural, said Klug Boonstra.

After MSIP accepted the question of the RCMS students, the class drove to the ASU campus for two days to inspect the THEMIS images scientists took for the kids. Then they had to present their findings to MIP scientists.

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Michele Nelson/Roundup

Arizona State University graduate student Leon Manfredi works with Nate McMullen (left) and Mitchell McGuire to understand the implications of NASA photos.

Throughout the process, Davidson and his students had a mentor, Leon Manfredi, an ASU graduate student studying geologic sciences.

Manfredi guided the students to create their question, scheduled a time for their ASU MSIP visit, and shepherded them throughout the data collection, analysis and presentation.

The question (hypothesis) RCMS students asked for their proposal was if the volcanic region of Mars, called the Tharsis region, was younger than Valles Marineris.

Once their proposal was accepted, the students pored over existing maps and photographs until they came up with a request for a high resolution image of a spot along the canyon wall they thought would provide an answer.

The RCMS students ordered up photos of Valles Marineris and of the Tharsis volcanic region. Manfredi further broke down the picture of the canyon into four segments, giving each group one segment to analyze closely.

By the end of the day, Manfredi had collected all the students’ data into a power point. He listened to the students practice their presentation.

“You might want to have each student take a slide to present,” he said, “How about you come around behind here after you’re done?” He suggested.

Each student presented an introduction, background, methods, data and their conclusions.

To their dismay, the different groups came to contradictory conclusions. Some of the images showed lava flows pouring over the canyon walls — just as lava flows spill into the Grand Canyon.

However, other images showed the canyon edge cutting cleanly through a great lava flow.

The students labored to reconcile the contradiction, not realizing that embedded in their presentation was the assumption that flowing water carves canyons on Mars as it does on Earth.

“You’ve tackled a tough problem,” said Hill at the end of the presentation. “You could spend 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 30 years on research, but you came up with similar results to what we have.”

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NasMars images from NASA

NASA photos seem to show a lava flow flowing into a branch of Mars’ Valles Marineris, which is 6 miles deep and 2,485 miles long.

The students beamed.

But that’s when scientist John Hill provoked the day’s “ah ha” revelation, which challenged them to abandoned their assumptions and follow the perplexing path of the data.

Suppose, he suggested, that the canyon caused new volcanoes to awaken in an older volcanic landscape? In that case, the canyon would cut through the older lava flows — but also create new volcanoes.

As it happens, planetary geologists believe that the massive slash of Valles Marineris was caused by a rift in the surface caused by shifts in the cooling molten core of the planet — not by the flow of water. In that way, it’s a lot more like the seven-mile-deep trenches beneath Earth’s oceans than it is like the Grand Canyon. If that’s true, then the formation of the canyon and the outpourings of the volcanoes would have deep links — and similar causes.

For the students, the project helped them understand the trap of their own assumptions, the importance of a good question and the unflinching search for good data.

“Science is about a lot more questions,” said Lindsey.

“Because of the complexity of how things work, you could learn something every day in science,” said Crystal Kubby.

Mission accomplished: future scientists on their way.

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