NASA Grant Will Create New Robotic Mars Rover Exhibit

A grant of $815,000 from NASA to the Saint Louis Science Center will support the creation of a new exhibit allowing visitors to experience the thrills and challenges of Mars exploration. The exhibit, “Bridging Earth and Mars (BEAM): Engineering Robots to Explore the Red Planet” is scheduled to open in the summer of 2015.  

The Saint Louis Science Center is one of only ten organizations or science centers across the country to share $7.7 million in grants from NASA’s Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums and NASA Visitor Centers Plus Other Opportunities, a program that funds informal STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning experiences.

“St. Louis has a long, rich history in aviation and space and, for over 50 years now, the James S. McDonnell Planetarium has played a vital role in conveying these discoveries and achievements to our visitors,” said Bert Vescolani, President and CEO of the Saint Louis Science Center. “We are enthusiastic about NASA’s support in this new opportunity and we hope to inspire the next generation of space scientists and engineers.”

BEAM will let visitors simulate what NASA engineers experience when they send instructions to a robotic rover over 35,000,000 miles away on Mars. Utilizing the unique campus of the Saint Louis Science Center to represent the distance between Earth and Mars, visitors will program a robotic rover in the Science Center’s main building then cross the Skybridge (that spans I-64/Highway 40) to view the rovers at work in the James S. McDonnell Planetarium in Forest Park.

“Informal education providers play a key role in NASA Education’s effort to make interactive STEM experiences available to students and the general public,” said Leland Melvin, NASA’s associate administrator for education. “Using compelling NASA content, they create fun, hands-on learning activities that help us stimulate greater interest in STEM. Increasing STEM literacy in students today is crucial to having the talent NASA will require for future missions of science and discovery.”

In being awarded the NASA grant, Vescolani also credits the project’s St. Louis collaborators including Raymond Arvidson, the James S. McDonnell Distinguished Professor in earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, a key member of NASA’s Mars exploration team. “Ray is a rock star in Mars exploration,” said Vescolani.

“The Saint Louis Science Center is a great place for hands-on experiences and the addition of commanding a Mars-like rover will allow visitors to experience first-hand the thrill of exploration and discovery. It also reinforces the importance of the Saint Louis area for aerospace engineering and space exploration,” said Arvidson.

Paul Freiling, director of engineering and robotics education at the Saint Louis Science Center, will use his expertise in Lego MINDSTORMS and FIRST Robotics to help young students understand how learning about Mars missions can link them to careers in space exploration, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“So much of the fun of engineering is getting to build things and try things out,” said Freiling.  “This funding from NASA will allow us to offer a series of hands-on workshops for K-8 students that will allow them to use their hands and minds to solve a design challenge.”

Additional components of the project include public lectures by local scientists involved in space technology, and outreach to St. Louis Public Schools and other Science Center community partners to attract a diverse audience for the K-8 workshops. Website resources will include design challenges that kids can do at home, and links to out-of-school opportunities for K-12 students to experience engineering design and robotics.

The Science Center’s other project collaborators include Theodosios Alexander, dean, Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology at Saint Louis University; Tasmyn Front, director of the Challenger Learning Center St. Louis; Kent Schien, Chief Executive Officer of Innoventor and Saint Louis Science Center commissioner; and Donald Peacock, district sales manager for National Instruments.

Sure to be a wonderful STEM learning opportunity at SLSC. New Lego Mindstorms robotics to program and launch on Mars! One more giant step toward inspiring and exciting kids about future opportunities...
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