Fifth-graders colonize WSU ballrooms

(Photo by Kenny Haeffele) Fifth-grade students accompanied by Weber State University and active military volunteers create a mock Mars colony on Tuesday in the ballrooms of the Shepherd Union Building.

A group of fifth-graders had an out-of-this-world experience at Weber State University on Tuesday with Link Up Day, the culminating event for Mission to Mars, a Mars colonization simulation sponsored by the United States Air Force.

Around 170 fifth-grade students from three different elementary schools met in the Shepherd Union Ballrooms to create a mock Mars colony. The fifth-graders, with the help of volunteers — including WSU students and staff, and active-duty military volunteers — created 10 different Martian “habitats” using box fans, plastic sheets and other materials. The habitats were then linked up with an “air-locked” passageway, thus linking the separate habitats into one colony.

“What they do is they use Air Force concepts and technologies, and they simulate an entire mission to Mars, from the beginning of uniforms and telecommunications and building life-support systems,” said Hollen Partington, Hill Air Force Base’s STEM coordinator. “And what these kids do is, for 10-12 weeks, they learn everything that there is to know about Mars and how it falls into their regular curriculum.”

Partington said this is the second annual Mission to Mars. As an example of how the program continues with regular fifth-grade curriculum, Partington said, “If you’re already going to talk about plant life, you may want to incorporate how plants would grow on Mars and why it’s different on Mars. We teach them how to do that.”

The program emphasized many different areas relating to science, technology, engineering and math. For example, the students, being at different schools, had to use various telecommunications in order to coordinate and work together to prepare materials beforehand. Students also had to weigh the lunches they ate in their habitats, as well as the waste and refuse resulting from lunch.

Gracie Fergus, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph’s Catholic School, said she’d had a lot of fun.

“My favorite part was building the homes and eating lunch inside,” she said.

Sergeant First Class James Lindsey, who volunteered at the event, said the event was also fun for the adults.

“The kids were great — a lot of creativity,” he said. “They did an outstanding job putting this together. The kids enjoyed it, the soldiers enjoyed it, all the volunteers enjoyed it. It’s one of the better ideas I’ve seen as far as school and community relations.”

Staff Sergeant Andre Adorno also volunteered at the event.

“I think, overall, it’s a really great program,” Adorno said. “Especially at such a young age, for the kids to get involved in something like this, it helps them to use their mind in other ways.”

Promoting creative thinking is exactly what the program intends.

“The whole point of this, obviously, is to get kids interested and excited about science, technology, engineering and math,” Partington said. “And the Air Force has a very big investment in that because we really would like these kids to get degrees in those fields and potentially look at careers for the Department of Defense later on down the road.”

The Air Force coordinated with the College of Applied Science and Technology at WSU to put on the event. Partington said working with WSU was great for the event.

“They have partnered with us and been terrific at providing the facility that we have today, providing us all these wonderful tables, the rooms — we got the food here from Sodexo. It’s just been a wonderful partnership on their part to help us put this together. It’s been just fantastic.”

Rainie Ingram, a College of Applied Science and Technology recruiter for WSU, said it’s really important to expose students to math, science and technology at young ages to inspire them.

“They’re having hard fun. They’re being challenged in hopes that they gain confidence through the experience and enjoyment in these fields and want to learn more about them. The kids were excited to share about their experiences with one another. They couldn’t wait to get their habitats up . . . They had a fun time learning and sharing their learning with one another.”