The Mars Lab is 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 objective of the program is to promote and lift participation rates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) by primary and high school students. This is achieved by providing them with an immersive and realistic STEM-rich experience in the form of a robotic planetary exploration mission looking for evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
The experience gets students to remotely operate research-grade robotic rovers, that are operating in a purpose-built 140 square meter scientifically accurate Mars Yard. Based on a prescribed program of geology and astrobiology that they have been following in the weeks leading up to their Mars Lab experience, students are asked to investigate the yard and look for evidence of life from the rocks in the space. The project has been running for two years, supported by Government funding, and is now self-sustainable. We have attracted over 5000 students from across Australia and internationally.
Despite the heavy emphasis on STEM from governments across the world, research has shown that the number of students participating in STEM education in higher studies are dropping in Australia and in other developed nations like the United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
This is problematic as demand for STEM skills will only increase as we progress into the 21st century. According to one Australian survey, 31.5% of respondents reported having difficulty recruiting STEM graduates, while 40.4% had difficulty recruiting STEM qualified technicians and trades workers. This implies that although many of the required positions were filled, the actual candidates hired may not have possessed all the skills and attribute that employers were looking for.
The Mars Lab programme attempts to address these issues by using space exploration as the inspiration for our education program. The program brings an inquiry-based approach to learning. Students are asked to generate their own research questions and formulate a plan on how they will conduct their experiments to answer these questions. From their classrooms, students are given an authentic, immersive and interactive experience where they can participate in an exploration mission using robots to answer their research questions.
At the conclusion of the program, students are asked to present their findings to the class and reflect on their experience.