This past spring, a bunch of middle schoolers from across the world went to Mars without ever setting foot on the red planet. The students, participating from schools in the U.S., Central America, and South America, were all part of the Mission Mars Virtual Field Trip, an event on Google Hangouts that simulated a real Mars mission with NASA images and an array of guest speakers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
The event, a partnership between NASA and The Collaboratory, a new initiative from the U.S. Department of State, wasn’t the first digital learning program from NASA. The agency’s Digital Learning Network has offered distance learning opportunities since 2003. This was, however, the first time that NASA brought its Mars lesson plan to teachers and students outside of the U.S.
“The essential purpose hasn’t changed: getting NASA content and people into classrooms and environments virtually. But the landscape of educational tech has changed tremendously,” says Bob Starr, the NASA LEARN Project Manager. “Originally teachers had to have the kind of equipment we had to communicate with us. One of the fundamental differences here is that we will reach you where you are technologically.”
Here’s what the field trip looked like, in full:
Schools from Washington, D.C., Argentina, Texas, Nicaragua, and New Jersey participated in the event, but there were almost 11,000 online participants watching it live in over 40 countries.
Having an international audience was crucial to the field trip, according to Amy Storrow, director of the Collaboratory. “The idea is that all of youth need to be involved in the planet’s problems. We need to get people from all over the world involved in STEM now.”
NASA, for its part, hopes to do more collaborative digital learning events in the future. Storrow says that the Collaboratory is already thinking about where to go on the next virtual field trip–perhaps the deep sea, or the South Pole.