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Utah fifth-graders embark on 'Mission to Mars'

OGDEN — Hundreds of fifth-graders gathered Wednesday to reach for the stars for mankind. Their mission? Colonize Mars.

An auditorium at Weber State University roared with excitement and enthusiasm as 350 students from across Weber and Davis counties worked together to create a community of 21 air-tight domes — to simulate what it would take to make human life on Mars possible.

Hill Air Force Base and WSU partnered to host the "Mission to Mars" program, aiming to inspire the next generation of engineers, mathematicians and scientists.

Alison Sturgeon, STEM program manager at Hill Air Force Base, said the event is a great way to inspire kids to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math and open their minds to possibilities even as far away as Mars.

"Maybe some of them will start dreaming" about becoming astronauts, engineers or computer scientists, Sturgeon said. "Maybe if we inspire them, it will make them want to take those harder math and science classes. If they have a reason, it makes a huge difference."

Uniformed, active duty Air Force members coached the fifth-graders as they worked on crafting their habitats, sealing sheets of plastic together with rolls and rolls of duct tape.

Kennedy Akau, a 10-year-old from West Point Elementary, jumped up and down and cheered when her team's habitat began to rise, filling with air from a common household fan before it reached all of 8 feet high.

"This is really cool," she said. "I didn't think it would work because our team was arguing. But we learned to fix our mistakes and work together."

Dana Dellinger, director of Weber's Center for Technology Outreach, said Weber State and Hill Air Force Base want to "produce citizens that are problem-solvers, innovative thinkers that can work together on solutions" because there never seems to be enough math and science graduates to fill the demand.

"We are spending so much money recruiting, trying to get more and more people to come work for us because we hire over 200 computer scientists and engineers every year," Sturgeon said. "The demand for that group of graduates is huge all over the country, so we need to do all we can to inspire as many kids as possible to go into the sciences so hopefully they can work for us one day."

After Kennedy explored the inside of her team's habitat, she said she wasn't "quite ready" to go to Mars for real, but as she's learned more about math and science, she's thought more about what she wants to be when she grows up.

"I'm thinking about becoming a chemical scientist or a mechanical engineer because I love those things," she said.

DaVinci Academy teacher Jessica Groff said the "Mission to Mars" program has been a great way to not only teach her students about math and engineering, but also problem-solving and teamwork. She said the program has been a theme in her classroom's curriculum since September.

"It's really creative because it incorporates a lot of different ways of learning," she said. "It's really good for them to use their brains and group together."


Twitter: KatieMcKellar1