Teams of young astronauts and engineers in the Mesa Unified School District have been working in shifts around the clock since Thursday morning to complete simulated space shuttle missions to Mars.
Students dressed as astronauts at Washington Elementary School in Mesa and Frost Elementary School in Chandler boarded homemade space shuttles parked in the multipurpose rooms at each campus and "blasted off" on command from classmates working in mission control rooms linked by closed-circuit television networks and walkie-talkies.
While some students stayed inside the shuttles, others set up colonies inside giant domed tents in the darkened multipurpose rooms. Once in simulated orbit, the fifth- and sixthgraders started working on reading and math assignments to earn oxygen points to stay alive overnight.
"The ground control has to work, the shuttle crew has to work and the colony has to work to keep alive," said Donald McMahon, the district’s special projects coordinator. "In this activity, work equals oxygen."
Many students, however, did not view their assignments as work.
"The students who are working here today don’t even realize they are working," said Washington fifthgrade teacher Colleen Howard. "They think they are playing."
Washington’s PTA president Wendie Clement said her son, Nick, was thrilled with his assignment as a payload specialist from 6 p.m. Thursday until midnight today.
"They love the idea of staying up late and all night long," Clement said.
Frost principal Timothy Moe said the shuttle activity has become a popular tradition at his school with parents, too. He said they help out every year wiring the mission control room and setting up the Polar Bear Express shuttle designed by fifth-grade teacher David Vasquez.
"Our families want learning to occur at a high level," Moe said. "But they also tend to be appreciative of any activities they feel build a sense of community."
East Valley business partners have also participated in the shuttle simulations. Boeing provided 12 engineers on Thursday to work with the students in the mission control room at Washington and also paid for Howard and another teacher to attend a space shuttle camp this summer in Huntsville, Ala.
Intel has helped Frost with its program in Chandler.