Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Introducing Critical Observation Skills Using NASA's Mars Exploration Program in a Small Introductory Class

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Introducing Critical Observation Skills Using NASA's Mars Exploration Program in a Small Introductory Class

Article excerpt


The arrival of multiple US and European planetary exploration missions at Mars (Squires et al., 2004a, 2004b; Clery, 2004) provided an opportunity to introduce students to geologic observation in general, and to planetary geology in particular, with all the excitement involved in "real-time" remote data acquisition from another planet. We took advantage of this opportunity by offering a freshman seminar in Mars Exploration timed to coincide with the arrivals of three planned landers in December 2003 and January 2004. The extended life of the NASA rover missions allowed us to hold this class again in 2005. While centering classroom discussion on the incoming observations, we also used the public proposal system of the Mars Orbital Camera (MOC) to teach principles of geologic observation to freshmen and sopnomores in a small classroom setting. Science and non-science majors were guided towards an analytical view of the planet in which they attempted to ask critical scientific questions about the surface morphology and proposed observations to answer those questions.


One of the biggest challenges facing higher education is how to provide a measure of scientific literacy to students who are not majoring in the physical or biological sciences or engineering. Undergraduates frequently hold many misconceptions about science, thinking of it as a dry collection of facts rather than as a means of understanding the universe and solving problems. Compounding this challenge is the fact that many students at large universities take only large-enrollment general education science courses, where interaction with faculty is necessarily limited. A wide variety of approaches have been developed to address this problem, including methods for introducing student interaction in large-enrollment classes for non-science majors, undergraduate research projects, and the like. We recently introduced real-time science into a low enrollment freshman seminar class centered on planetary exploration. By focusing on current exploration of a single planet, Mars, we were able to introduce some of the principles of planetary exploration while challenging the students to develop a critical eye for observation.


The Freshman Seminar program at UC Davis provides the opportunity for first and second year students to enroll in small classes (fewer than 20 students) taught by faculty. Because UC Davis is a large (30,000 students) research-oriented university, the freshman seminars offer many lower-division students a rare chance to interact with faculty in a small class setting. These courses are one or two units, meet once per week, and are typically less structured than most undergraduate classes. The structure of the seminar lends itself to collaborative exploration of topics by students and faculty, rather than a "top-down transfer of knowledge from faculty to students. The topics vary, with some subjects offered annually and others offered one time only. (A list of all the topics is available at The program is designed to be flexible, allowing faculty to rapidly develop seminars on topics of emerging interest.


In Winter, 2004, we taught a Freshman Seminar on Mars Exploration, timed to coincide with the arrival at Mars of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter and Beagle Lander, and the NASA twin !anders Spirit and Opportunity. Because the NASA mission was extended beyond its original planned 90-day lifetime, we were able to offer the class again in Winter 2005. The students who choose to enroll in our class came from a wide range of intended majors, with only 15% and 0% of the students enrolled in the physical sciences and 63% and 86% in majors outside the sciences and engineering in the two years we taught the course (Table 1); 12.5% of the students were women. Our goals for the class were to introduce students to planetary exploration in general and Martian geology in particular, to educate the students in the scientific process by involving the students in it, and to develop their critical thinking and observation skills. …

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