Controlling the Mars rover from the classroom

Sydney University Professor, Salah Sukkarieh, is creating new ways to engage students with the remote rover project. Photo: University of Sydney

The landing of NASA’s Mars rover may be attracting the attention of scientists and space fanatics the world over, but a new $2.9 million education project is sparking the curiosity of Australian school students.

Funded by the federal government and taking advantage of the high speed
National Broadband Network, the “Education 2020” program will provide school students across Australia with remote access to two experimental Mars rover robots housed at the Powerhouse Museum. Students will be able to remotely control the rovers and conduct experiments in a 140 square metre Mars Yard and robotics lab, the largest of its kind in a public space worldwide.

Developed by a partnership between the University of NSW, University of Sydney, and the Powerhouse Museum, the program is designed to address the national skills shortage and graduate deficit in engineering by encouraging student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

While the number of engineering graduates has increased in recent years, research conducted by Engineers Australia indicates that industry demand continues to exceed supply. Similarly, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations says that employers continue to experience difficulty in recruiting engineers.

Program developer Dr Carol Oliver of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology hopes that the initiative will better engage students and attract them to the field by taking out of the traditional classroom and virtually integrating them in the research of science and engineering graduates.

“Our students are learning in an entirely different way these days,” says Dr Oliver.

“They are digital natives, they don’t learn the way I learned at school, and we’ve got to address that.”

The program will also see the development of a searchable multimedia database, tele-presence video conferencing between students, teachers and researchers, and interactive professional development courses for teachers.

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Rob North is the Technology reporter for Honi Soit.