Not a simulation, no “what-if” scenarios, the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) is a way for your class to participate in authentic exploration of the Martian surface with the help of the camera onboard the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. While surfing NASA’s Mars Exploration site, I found this completely standards based unit that is “designed to fit within existing science curriculum and teach the already required objectives and standards using real world science instead of worksheets or simulations.”
Fits within my existing curriculum and aligned to the National Science Education Standards you say? Great, now what is it? NASA, in cooperation with Arizona State University, has founded this program to allow teacher lead student teams to perform real world science. Geared towards 5th grade and up, students will have the ability to create an observation plan of a particular patch of the Martian surface and, with the help of spacecraft controllers, get to send commands to Odyssey as it orbits Mars. When the observations are complete, the images are sent back to Earth where your students can analyze the data. This has to be by far one of the most compelling opportunities to bring real world science into a classroom that I’ve ever heard of. The teacher packet is amazingly thorough, providing a detailed curriculum for the study, including background on the educational theory of constructivist and cooperative learning models that the unit was developed around.
Of course, you do need to fill out a simple application, and be in possession of at least one Internet enabled computer with a web cam. However, other than the 30 dollars or so it may cost to purchase the web cam the program is provided absolutely free to classrooms across the nation. All that’s left is finding a way to keep the students from fighting over who gets to control the spacecraft next.