California students watch and learn through hands-on projects as Mars rover lands

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Science teaching experts at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory created a five-week curriculum called “Mission to Mars Student Challenge” that is aligned with the state standards in engineering, Earth science and other topics to cut down on teacher prep work. Nearly 163,000 California students signed up to follow along with the weekly updates and lessons, which had students creating their own rover designs, testing models and learning what it takes to travel in space.

Guadalupe De La O, a high school teacher at Alliance Renee & Meyer Luskin Academy High School in Los Angeles, is hoping the landing inspires some of her students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM.

“We talk a lot about how this work involves a lot of testing and revision, which requires patience and persistence to problem-solve,” said De La O, who teaches STEM. “One of the most challenging activities is they had to code a rover that would maneuver on Mars. For a lot of my students, this was their first time coding. But every time they had a little success they would want to try more and more.”

Diving deep into the space mission also provided students with an uplifting current event to focus on as many continue to face trauma brought on by the pandemic.

“This is an experience for everybody,” De La O said. “My students are mostly Black and Latino and their community in South Central is being really hit hard right now by the pandemic. So it was really important for me to get them involved, so they know that they can pursue this if they want, and give us a little hope this year.”