PVAMU Visits Austin Community College

ACC SYA After Event Report

Event Date: 13 November 2004

Pictures of the event


The event went well, with two groups of middle school students in attendance. The workshops were delayed by 15 minutes, but proceeded as planned. The students are from the surrounding community, said to be the lowest socio-economic class of Austin. They are mostly of Hispanic origin. Mr. Olguin had shared that a number of students from past Summer Youth Academies have ultimately attended ACC and some of their parents as well. We discussed the possibilities of setting up a pipeline between ACC and PVAMU, a Memorandum of Understanding and/or a curriculum alignment.

The Sessions

The groups had about 15 and 20 students each. I divided each group in each session into three subgroups: engineers to test and document the abilities of the rover, scientists to help choose a landing site and later choose the best rocks to analyze, and navigators to help us get to Mars and to drive the rover once we arrived. I ultimately gave anyone interested a chance to help fly the spacecraft to Mars with the simulator provided on NASA’s marsquestonline.org interactive web site. I pointed out the locations of four make-believe instruments on the “rover”: the camera located in the driver’s seat, the low resolution spectrogram (LRS) on the front end, and the pair of instruments on the back end: the high resolution spectrogram (HRS) and the microscopic imager (MI). I briefly described what these can do in terms and analogies understandable to middle-school students. The HRS/MI instruments provided higher quality science and provides a 3x multiplier to the point value of any rock “analyzed” (that is, brought within one inch of the “instruments” with them “looking” head-on, and not sideways). The LRS carried a weight of only 1x.

The rocks themselves, consisting of cylindrical 1-, 2-, and 5-kg slotted masses (one and two points each), LEGO structures representing rocks of varied mineral composition (3 points each), and three LEGO RCX bricks, encased in magnetex structures, placed in fairly challenging locations, and emitting sound pulses every 2 seconds (5 points each). The RCX bricks represent possible habitats for Martian life forms.

The time was cut short due to the delay in schedule (the previous session ran long), so all of the planned module activities were not executed. However, a somewhat improvised version, containing most of the elements of the original modules, was executed. The least popular part of the module seemed to be the engineering part, where the students were asked to measure the distance covered by the “rover” (a radio-controlled car) and its turning radius, and calculate its forward and reverse speed with a simple formula. At least two students enjoyed using the multimeter to measure the voltage levels in the batteries, and many enjoyed the marsquestonline.org website simulation where one attempts to launch a spacecraft from a moving Earth to reach a moving Mars. Both groups were able to successfully send a spacecraft to Mars on their 8 th or 9 th attempts.

Also popular was the controlling of the rover. I had wanted the “ground mission” to last 30 minutes, but due to the time crunch, each team had less than 15 minutes to steer the rover to “analyze” various “Martian rocks”. Also, due to the shortage of time, I made the actual operation of the rovers easier: in the case of the second group I had their teachers select the 5 best-behaved students and allowed them to “drive” the rover—one operated the controller with his / her eyes shut wile his / her partner directed the person where to go. We switched off periodically so that everyone of the five were able to have a turn at operating the rover.

Results and Feedback

The second team won, with 15 science points compared with the previous team’s 12. The former was awarded a K’NEX programmable building kit, while the latter was awarded a model of the “rover” used in the exercises. Since the students were from different schools, we suggested (and Mr. Olguin was pleased with the idea) that the teams meet again at some point in the future to build the models, then each school take turns to house the model (it can go to ACC when it is not being used by a school). We also discussed how each model can be used in an instructional setting for science and engineering, as is already being done at many colleges and schools across the country.

There were some technical problems with the rovers, some communication with the remote (a number of students were watching, blocking the signal, and “Mars” was set up in a rather confined area), and some mechanical. The front suspension of one came apart, and several pieces may be missing. For next time, we will likely need to get more robust “rovers”. In spite of the problems (I used these to illustrate the fact that real-life mission control personnel encounter similar problems in real missions, but cannot just go to the equipment and fix it), the missions were successful. Dr. Tyra Duncan-Hall was present for the second session and was pleased with what she saw.

In summary, a revised module able to be performed in less than one hour would have been helpful. I will work on such a module before the next event in February, which I was invited to participate in. The current module is most useful for groups of 15 having sessions lasting 90 minutes or more. The experience was very useful, in that it showed what was done well and what could be improved. The engineering part, with the measurement of rover speed and documentation of parameters, will be shortened for the shorter sessions, with more emphasis placed on getting to Mars and roving on its surface. I have also been invited to present the exercises in the summer youth academy in June, to do five sessions over the course of a day.

Pictures taken at the event as well as this summary, will appear on the Physics department web site within a few days of this writing (16 November 2004).

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