500 Utah fifth-graders use STEM skills to go on a ‘Mission to Mars’


OGDEN — Ten-year-old Kiyoshi Ota wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up.

Along with his fifth-grade class at the New Bridge School, he has prepared for an imaginary mission to Mars since before winter break, according to Noemi Ota, his mother.

As he and his classmates gathered Wednesday in the Weber State University gym to create inflatable plastic habitats they designed to sustain life on Mars, Kiyoshi showed off his contribution to the project — a model of a life-support system.

It includes a "Lego person, chicken and rocks," Kiyoshi said.

"Apple trees produce air, seeds feed chickens," he explained, motioning at miniature pieces that his dad bought from a dollar store to use on the model.

His mom said when he presented the life-support system to his class, Kiyoshi was "so nervous … but he explained what the purpose was for each part. … Things that, my goodness, I didn't think that he was capable of knowing. But they did their research."

Mission to Mars Link-Up Day — sponsored by the Hill Air Force Base STEM Outreach Program and Weber's College of Engineering, Applied Science and Technology — involved about 500 10- and 11-year-olds who employed skills they've been practicing in class for a pretend journey to the distant planet.

"Our hope is that they get really interested in the STEM subjects. … We need more STEM people to go to college and get STEM degrees," said Lance Butler, STEM outreach coordinator for Hill Air Force Base, adding that there is a shortage of workers in science, technology, engineering and math fields in Utah — a shortage that encompasses about 4,600 jobs.

To prepare for their imaginary space mission, the kids learned about Mars, designed patches and uniforms, created a "saga," or story about their trip and designed life-support systems.

This year was Ronda Jones' third year attending the event with her class. The teacher at DaVinci Academy of Science and the Arts says her class went all out with the project this year.

Each student got a call name, like they use in the military. The fifth-graders also practiced marching, she explained.

"They've been working hard. Each kid has put in their special skill set to make the project even better," she said.

"It's team-building skills, definitely, problem-solving, for sure, but mainly creativity and learning about Mars in relation to Earth, but also learning about each other," the teacher said.

Julian Vallesillo, whose call name for the mission was "Spike," was a team captain for his DaVinci class. He said his job on the project required "a lot of passion and energy."

"So what it does is that it promotes people to, you know, stay active," the his explained.

His friend Andrew Reyes, or "Cisco" for the day, was another team captain. He said his team has practiced their skills for three months to prepare for the mission.

As a team captain, he said he tries to "get (the team) to focus and stay calm and not talk when we're doing our march, and our stuff."

For their classmate Sunshine "Stormy" Eads, creating the group's saga was the best part of the project. They integrated Mars facts into their team's story.

It took the kids a few hours to inflate their plastic habitats. When they linked the habitats together, a sense of delight and accomplishment filled the gymnasium as they enjoyed the culmination of many classroom hours.

Sophie Peterson, a New Bridge fifth-grader, says she wants to be a park ranger when she grows up.

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"This can help with my career in the future because we need to work as a team together, and when we research things about stuff far away, it can help me with the researching," she explained.

Her friend Mallory Reynolds says she someday wants to be a writer or editor. Her favorite part of the project was "drawing the ceiling, 'cause I had all these cool UFOs and stuff."

She said she thinks the mission will help her in her future career, because "it'd make a good story. And also, you could write about if somebody actually went to Mars, and used this as an actual thing. That'd be a good story, too," she explained.

The event will continue Thursday.