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Mars yard powerhouse
11 August, 2014

Creating a virtual pathway to Space for research and education

AARNet connectivity is providing remote access to a living lab inside the Powerhouse Museum, enabling an innovative education program and robotics engineering research.

AARNet infrastructure underpins the Mars Lab, a 3D recreation of the Martian landscape (Mars Yard) and adjacent robotics laboratory, located inside Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

In the Mars Yard high school students are given the opportunity to partake in real scientific research while researchers evaluate the success of the education program and also investigate robotics engineering and other scientific problems.

Inspiring high school students to pursue studies in STEM subjects

In some industries, shortages of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills are already being felt, and the problem begins in high school with fewer and fewer students taking science in Years 11 and 12. The aim of the Mars Lab projects have been, and remain, centred on changing that by engaging students in science as it is done, rather than through hands-on school experiments that fail to achieve that outcome.

For the education program, developed with funding from the Broadband Enabled Education and Skills Services program run by the Federal Department of Education, students participate from remote locations via high-speed broadband connections using AARNet and the national broadband network.

Mission planning and interactive activities, such as driving experimental roving vehicles similar to NASA’s Mars Rovers to find evidence, teach students about the challenges of conducting robotic missions on Mars. Students also participate in international video conferences with leading scientists and engineers, and use the telepresence for related STEM digital education opportunities.

A consortium led by the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at UNSW in partnership with the Powerhouse Museum and the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney is the driving force behind the facility.

Pathways to Space

The Mars Yard was created in 2010 as a resource for the Consortium’s federally funded Pathways to Space Australian Space Research Program (completed early 2013), which investigated bringing research and education together in a public place to ignite the interest of high school students in space studies and careers.

From its inception, a key feature of the program was to use telepresence to connect students to scientists and engineers nationally and internationally. In order to deliver this experience, the Museum’s existing 12Mbps (Megabits per second) Internet connection was upgraded to a 1Gbps (Gigabit per second) AARNet service.

"This turned out to be a move in future-proofing on a much grander scale beyond this first project. It allowed us to apply for and win another grant, and also allowed the Powerhouse to innovate across the business in digital education and outreach in ways that would have been impossible on their 12Mbps connection," said Dr Carol Oliver of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of NSW.

A highly successful part of the Pathways to Space project involved testing an international collaboration with the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) at Arizona State University (ASU). Australian students from four Sydney high schools worked on their research project at the Powerhouse Museum, using an AARNet connection to access the THEMIS (Thermal Imaging System) camera on board the $300m Odyssey spacecraft in orbit around Mars, as well as with NASA scientists and educators at ASU. Astronaut and NASA administrator Charles Bolden also visited Pathways to Space to meet with the students in person.

"We were more than surprised to find that in just a short interaction with scientists and engineers while using the Mars Lab, students had significantly increased their understanding of creativity in science,” said Dr Oliver.

For the duration of Pathways to Space program, the Mars Lab was also used as a test bed for robotics research, and research in this field, along with space and education research, continues there today.

The Mars Lab has also provided numerous undergraduate and post-graduate research opportunities and has been used to redesign a space engineering course at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney that now boasts the highest Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) in the country.

Dr Oliver said that the end of the Pathways to Space project was just the beginning for the Mars Lab.

"The Mars Lab is pushing the boundaries of remote access education. Online courses are changing the way students learn at university level and beyond. The Mars Yard is enabling us to work on and test what we think might be the next big step in learning – something entirely different from online courses and aimed at transformation teaching and learning in the classroom. We are using the Mars Lab as a context for science and maths learning – in other words, inspiration through exploration.”

The Mars Yard project is a huge success for remote access to education and research, and we would never have been able to do any or this without the AARNet infrastructure in place from the beginning.”

University of New South Wales
Dr Carol Oliver

Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of NSW