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Bringing the excitement and transformational power of Mars exploration to kids in Rio de Janeiro's City of God neighborhood.
Bringing the excitement and transformational power of Mars exploration to kids in Rio de Janeiro's City of God neighborhood.
114 backers pledged $30,123 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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Mars Academy is an educational outreach and documentary film project. Four scientists and a filmmaker will spend two weeks in the City of God favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, bringing NASA science – through hands-on experiments and field trips to the Brazilian rainforest – to a group of kids who would otherwise never be exposed to it. Ultimately, the students will join the front lines of exploration as they direct a NASA mission orbiting the Red Planet, expanding our knowledge of the universe and unlocking their own potential in the process.

Este projeto visa despertar o interesse pela ciência trazendo o entusiasmo das missões a Marte para estudantes da Cidade de Deus. Para conhecer melhor o projeto, assista ao video aqui. (Para legendas em português, clique em CC no canto inferior direito do vídeo e escolha "português".) Leia também a matéria que saiu n' O Globo sobre o projeto.

The gulf between NASA’s neon hued control rooms and the listing corrugated iron shacks of the global poor is vast, yet they are connected by the most essential of human traits: exploration and a thirst for the unknown. This project will bridge that gulf, bringing the forefront of exploration to one of the world’s most economically disadvantaged communities and providing a vibrant reminder of the possibilities of human endeavor in the process. 

In the summer of 2015, our five-person team will travel to Rio de Janeiro and work with local teachers at the Developing Minds Foundation's school in the City of God favela. The Foundation has long been recognized for the effectiveness of its technology-based facility, which offers lessons to over 700 students per year. We will supplement the curriculum with a week of hands-on lessons centered around habitability, our place in the universe, and the search for life beyond Earth. We aim to instill a sense of environmental stewardship in the continued exploration of our planet’s resources (e.g., the Brazilian rainforest and ocean ecosystems) as well as worlds beyond.

With this goal in mind, we will take the class on field trips to the nearby rainforest – a rare opportunity for the students, despite their proximity to this natural wonder – and the Brazilian coast, where we will explore the underwater realm with an OpenROV submersible. Back in the classroom and around the favela, we will provide context on Mars and pursue connections between environmental evolution on the Red Planet and the remarkable biology of Brazil’s rainforests.

Armed with this contextual knowledge and their own curiosity, students will spend the final two days developing an experimental objective for NASA’s HiRISE camera, which will be sent to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. HiRISE is one of the most advanced and productive scientific instruments currently exploring our Solar System: with the spatial resolution of a dinner plate, it can spot boulder-strewn streambeds, stunning dune fields, and even the rovers wheeling around Mars’ surface.

During its 8-year mission, HiRISE has produced some of the most beautiful and scientifically valuable data ever collected from the Red Planet. Yet only a tiny fraction of the planet has been imaged, and there’s a lot left to discover. By directing the camera to an unseen region of Mars, the City of God students will make a real and lasting contribution to space exploration. We will return to the school once the image has been acquired to show the students what they will have accomplished in exposing a corner of the universe never before seen by human eyes.

Cutting edge exploration and the wildly exciting questions it engages should not be the exclusive provenance of the developed world, and this project will make Mars exploration a truly human-wide pursuit.More importantly, the program will inspire children on a lifelong journey of discovery that will benefit their home communities in unpredictable and immeasurable ways. With this in mind, we will supply the classroom with relevant math and science textbooks, offering eager learners appropriate resources. We will also share some powerful web-based tools with local teachers, so they can continue discussions on the themes of scientific exploration with other students for years to come. In consultation with economic development experts, we will track students’ long-term progress to establish the program’s efficacy. Ultimately, the most important indicator of a student’s future academic success is her desire to learn, and we believe we can instill a life-changing thirst for knowledge in a fiscally efficient manner by helping students participate in the far reaches of humanity’s explorations.

The Film

Throughout the educational and exploratory activities described above, we will document proceedings and produce a film sharing the students’ personal journeys of discovery. In this documentary, we hope to build a rare and intimate portrait of students living in Brazil’s City of God favela, from their lives at home, to their discoveries in the classroom; from their relationships with other students, to their experiences during hands-on field trips. On a shoestring budget, we will spend time interviewing and filming in the classroom, on class field trips, and with the students’ families in their homes. Ultimately, we will provide a character-driven portrayal of the students’ daily lives and their personal journeys from the favela to the wind-swept plains of another planet. 

We think it’s important to make a documentary film about this educational outreach project so that we can share the lessons learned from this experience with other children, schools, and people around the world.

Our Goal

To make this all happen, we are seeking $30,000 of crowd-sourced funding, which would be used to support local school staff, educational material costs, logistical arrangements for the students during our field trip and other lessons, team travel, and film production costs.

Fortunately, several priceless assets are already in place: the scientific and educational expertise of our team, access to NASA’s HiRISE camera, and strong buy-in from the well-regarded Developing Minds Foundation NGO, which uses "educational programs as a way to break the cycle of poverty, hopelessness and violence in areas that are deeply impoverished and affected by conflict." With full funding, we anticipate a finished documentary by January 2016. Any additional funding beyond our goal will be directed toward future exploration-based projects in disadvantaged communities around the world.

The Team

We’ve assembled a dedicated team of experts eager to share their expertise with the City of God students, a broad audience, and you, our backers. Each team member is an emerging leader in their field and is critical to the project’s ultimate success.

Carolyn Crow is a NASA Earth and Space Sciences Graduate Fellow in geochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles. She studies the early geologic history of the Moon, in particular the history of large impacts recorded in rock samples returned by the Apollo missions. Constraining the early impact rate of the Moon and Earth is important for understanding not only the emergence of life on early Earth, but also the potential habitability of Mars and other bodies in our solar system. Carolyn has worked with the NASA Dawn Mission Education and Public Outreach team to develop classroom materials that incorporate mission science and has conducted teacher training on how to utilize these materials to enrich their curriculums. She also received the UCLA Earth and Space Sciences Departmental Teaching Award for her work as a teaching assistant.

Paul Hayne is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He designs experiments for missions across the Solar System, and uses data beamed back by these missions to study fundamental processes shaping planetary surfaces and atmospheres. Before joining JPL’s science staff, Paul earned his BS and MS degrees from Stanford, a PhD from UCLA, and was a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. Originally inspired to pursue planetary science by the discovery of a subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Paul’s research follows the theme of habitability. From the polar ice caps of Mars to the hydrocarbon rivers and lakes of Titan, the spectacular and mysterious features revealed by NASA’s planetary missions provide plenty of inspiration in this pursuit.

Hank Leukart is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, television producer, and writer. Hank has produced a variety of television shows for American television networks, including CBS's "Amazing Race” and “Big Brother,” ABC’s “Expedition Impossible,” Discovery's "Naked and Afraid," History's "Top Shot,” The CW's "Capture,” and TNT's "72 Hours.” His recent short documentary film, Umbrella Dreams, followed a group of student activists for four days during the Hong Kong democracy demonstrations in the fall of 2014. An adventure-travel enthusiast, Hank has traveled to over 45 countries while writing his popular online travelogue, Without Baggage. His recent trips have included hiking 115 miles across Iceland, backpacking through post-revolution Egypt, boating down the Congo River, trekking across Nepal's Three Passes to Everest Base Camp, cycling through Vietnam, and backpacking in Chilean Patagonia. Hank’s also a secret science nerd: he spent five years after college designing software at Microsoft.

Jeff Marlow is a geobiologist at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies exotic microbial metabolisms in an attempt to understand the limits of life on Earth and beyond. He has followed extreme microorganisms to active volcanoes, acidic rivers, ice caves, the high Andes, and the deep ocean, and has worked on NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers and Phoenix Mars Lander. Jeff has also worked for Google's marketing team, Cisco’s Planetary Skin partnership with NASA; as a journalist, he has reported on science, the environment, and international development for The New York Times, and is currently a contributing writer at Wired Magazine.

Alexis Pasulka is a biological oceanographer currently working as a postdoctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology. Her research is focused on the top predators of the microbial world – viruses and single-celled grazers. Since microorganisms play essential roles in the structure, maintenance, and overall functioning of all life and ecosystems on Earth, understanding the role that these predators play in shaping microbial communities is of critical importance. She is actively involved in education outreach programs that aim to broaden the participation of under-represented groups in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. For these activities, she received the Achievement in Outreach and Community Service Award from the Association for Women in Science. As a recent participant in the American Society of Microbiology’s Science Teaching Fellowship, Alexis continues to be committed to science education and aims to inspire scientific curiosity in others and help foster the next generation of scientists.

Risks and challenges

Interplanetary exploration is by its very nature a risky endeavor. Potential obstacles include technical problems with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, altered mission priorities that could modify the queue of target images, or martian weather events that may obscure the students' selected target. Our interactive education plans could also require adjusting (due to, e.g., weather or transportation issues), but given our range of assembled expertise and adaptability, we are confident that we will be able to provide a life-changing experience for the kids and a valuable, entertaining, and enlightening product for our backers.

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    All of the above + An OpenROV v2.7 kit. Explore the underwater realm for yourself with this submersible, which can travel 250 feet below the water’s surface and streams HD video to your laptop.

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Funding period

- (45 days)