Link-Up Day Is Culmination of Yearlong Starbase® La Luz Project

Thomas Guengerich, New Mexico Tech public information, 575-835-5617
Gerald Mora, AFRL Starbase® La Luz program manager, 505-846-6936
Ronda Cole, AFRL Starbase® La Luz director, 505-846-8042

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., April 15, 2008 – More than 880 fifth-graders plus 150 middle school students from around New Mexico will spend the day Friday, April 18, building Mars habitats and colonies at the Albuquerque Convention Center.

The STARBASE® La Luz Academy is an Air Force Research Laboratory education outreach program in collaboration with New Mexico Tech. The education outreach program includes projects for students from fifth grade through high school seniors.

This year’s field of young space explorers include students from Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Edgewood, Gallup, Grants, Lovington, Magdalena, Moriarty, Roswell and Cuba.

New Mexico Tech program manager Gerald Mora has been working with the Starbase education program since its inception in 1994. He said the STARBASE® La Luz program is a valuable learning tool for teachers and students.

“The whole idea is that, as you go from fifth grade into middle school, you’re hyped about science and learning about technology,” Mora said. “Most kids will lose it without sustained attention to science. That’s why our academy is from fifth grade through high school.”

The fifth-grade project culminates with Friday’s Mars Mission Link-Up Day. Throughout the school year, fifth-graders have learned about Mars and they have planned their “mission.” Students represent 44 classrooms from 27 elementary schools in New Mexico. Each class was divided into three teams, with each team responsible for constructing one-third of a Mars habitat.

Ronda Cole is the director of the STARBASE® La Luz program. On Friday, she’ll act as mission commander, with six colony commanders (classroom teachers) reporting to her. Over 14 years of leading the STARBASE® La Luz program, she has seen students find an appreciation for learning.

At Link-Up Day in Albuquerque, each team will meet their counterparts for the first time in person. To build a habitat, the small groups from three different schools will work together to construct their Mars dwelling space.

“The best part for me is to see them building the habitats,” Cole said. “When they started the project, there are always plenty of Doubting Thomases. They say, ‘There’s no way we can build a house out of plastic, tape and a fan, especially not in one hour.’ Then, they do it and it’s cool to see their sense of accomplishment.”

Each team will bring different components – plastic walls and ceilings, their mission patch, life support systems and lunch.

“These students get to experience science and math in action,” Cole said. “They get to be a part of a scientific journey and to see these disciplines in action.”

The interdisciplinary project includes more than just building a Mars colony, however. Each team will have to solve an equation to discover the location of their habitat. Each team also presents their mission patch that they’ve designed.

“The whole day, the students are on a mission. They’re following their mission log and they’re focused. You might be surprised to see that many kids working together,” Mora said.

Volunteers from the Air Force Research Laboratory will quiz the students about Mars facts. Also, each team will perform a song, called a “saga,” that they’ve written about their journey to Mars. At each stage, students fill out their “mission log” and accumulate points.

“A fifth-grader comes away from this saying that science is fun,” Mora said. “More importantly, they learn that – regardless of your discipline, there’s a place for me in space. If you like art or math or music or science, there’s a place for you in space.”

Prior to eating, students will also have to weigh their lunches, which should contain a set number of ounces per person – and also have packaging constraints. After the habitats are inflated, the students will eat lunch inside their habitats, then weigh their scraps and garbage.

“These students have experienced an event that they will remember for the rest of their lives,” Mora said. “I hear that from college students who come back and tell me that this was the most memorable experience they had in all of their school years.”

The habitats will then be linked into colonies, with seven or eight habitats forming a Mars Colony. After students have completed their mission logs and after the habitats are linked, the students are free to explore the colony.

“When we open up the colonies to let the kids explore, it’s controlled chaos,” Mora said.