Red Rover Project

July 1, 1997 | Mike Key

The Flames are in trouble. Their vision of a Mars landscape is languishing. The concept is brilliant: sand covers a rugged landscape scattered with boulders; mountains are superposed in front of a pinkish sky and fleecy white clouds. They lack, however, enough sand to cover their plywood frame and the boulders and mountains they’re trying to make with packing peanuts keep breaking apart. “Tape!” the team engineer cries. “We’ve got to have tape!”

A Red Rover Team builds a Marscape.

A Red Rover Team builds a Marscape.

The Flames are one of three Red Rover mission teams-seventh and eighth graders building and testing models of NASA’s Mars Rover robot. After it’s delivered by the Pathfinder spacecraft, the small, wheeled Rover will photograph and gather information about the surface of Mars. To mark the Fourth of July arrival of Pathfinder on Mars, SSEC scientist Sanjay Limaye developed the Space Exploration workshop to give students a taste of the real thing.

During the two-week program, 15 students from Madison and Brookfield built models of the Martian terrain, designed remote-controlled Rovers using Lego kits provided by the Planetary Society, and created Web pages to document their accomplishments. Each mission team divided its responsibilities based on real-world research tasks: team leader, engineer, scientist, budget director, and communications specialist.

For two and a half hours each morning from June 9 through June 20, the teams met at Lincoln School on Madison’s south side. Part of a national Red Rover program, Sanjay’s workshop was incorporated into the Space Exploration portion of UW-Madison’s College Access Program, a program targeted at motivated minority students. In addition to the fun and adventure of space exploration, Sanjay hopes the workshop offered experience in teamwork, planning, communication, time and resource management, research, writing, and math and computer skills.

By the next day, the Flames had worked themselves out of their dilemma. They had procured tape and all the other materials they needed to construct a truly artistic (and somewhat realistic) Mars landscape. It was marvelous to watch that group and the other two-Notorious MARS and ET-become true teams, each member performing his or her self-designated tasks with little adult intervention (only a little nudging, a pair of helping hands, and occasionally, an answer to a question). By the end of the second week, all three teams had completed their terrain models using various materials on four-foot plywood bases, and functioning Rovers that could navigate them.

Model Mars Rovers are constructed with Legos and electric motors.

Model Mars Rovers are constructed with Legos and electric motors.

In addition to their Rover work, the Space Exploration group scanned the night skies for Mars (this included a special trip to the Washburn Observatory on campus), researched Mars terrain features using the Internet and printed materials, and scoured neighborhoods for rocks and stones of the proper Mars-boulder size, heft and color. They were busy and seemed, most of them, to love every minute.

Besides learning for themselves, these 15 youngsters are preparing valuable materials to be used in Madison school classes. After the students presented their work to their parents on June 20, the materials were stored so they can be used by David Wirth’s fourth and fifth grade classes at Lincoln Elementary School this fall.

This workshop was made possible with funding by UW-Madison’s School of Education and the Evjue Foundation as well as liberal involvement by SSEC, including that of outreach specialist Rosalyn Pertzborn.