Engaging kids in the sciences has been a key priority of many educators, but it’s a goal that is not always easily achieved. But one team of robotics engineers, researchers, academics and museum staff have found an irresistible formula to draw children in.
“What we decided to look at was how we could combine the things that fascinate kids the most, – dinosaurs, space and robotics – all together,” explained Professor Salah Sukkarieh.
Sukkarieh is one of the team behind the Mars Lab, a collaborative project between the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at the University of Sydney, The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS) in Sydney. The project has set up a simulated mission to Mars on an educational search for prehistoric life, not unlike current real-life NASA missions.
The team builds three robots, in the style of an interplanetary rover and using some virtual interfaces and the power of the internet have provided access to the machines to high school students around Australia.
“The students can play with and move the robots under a specific set of guidelines tied to their curriculum, so their actually learn about the science, technology, engineering and maths that fits in with their studies,” said Sukkarieh.
Students simply head to the museum’s website, follow the links and off they go. First they pick up a few robot-driving skills using a simulator developed using video game engines. Once they pass their driving test they can move on to control the robots, which have been set up in a simulation of the surface of Mars. The Mars Yard is accurate in terms of terrain and colour and thanks to the addition of some fossil-containing prehistoric rocks, there is something for the young explorers to find.
The project has been running for two years, supported by Australian government funding, and is now self-sustainable. It has attracted more than 5000 students from across Australia and internationally to the engaging experience so far, with more just a click away from combining space, robots and dinosaurs in one interactive lesson.