October 31, 2014  

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Southern Miss Researchers Strive to Engage Students with Mars Project

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A project designed by Southern Miss researchers to study whether algae could be grown on Mars is scheduled for inclusion aboard a future space station mission. (Office of University Communications photo)

Can algae from deep below the ice of Antarctica possibly survive on Mars?

This is a question researchers from The University of Southern Mississippi, along with dozens of high school students in Mississippi and Alabama, are hoping to have answered after their research project, “Pioneering Mars,” boards the International Space Station (ISS).

Studying cyanobacteria, Dr. Julie Cwikla, director of creativity and innovation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Southern Miss, and Dr. Scott Milroy, associate professor of marine science at Southern Miss, are hoping to learn whether this particular species of microscopic algae, grown in the extreme conditions of Antarctica, could potentially survive in the Martian climate.

“Growing algae in a petri dish is not all that exciting, but when you think about the context of Mars, what could be more exciting than pioneering Mars?” said Cwikla. “Thinking about if we could grow things there, we could farm Mars. We could feed the planet, we could feed Earth.”

The NASA-funded project, which was selected in early 2014 for a future flight aboard the ISS, involved students from Bay High School and St. Stanislaus College, both in Mississippi’s Hancock County, and Baker High School and Davidson High School, both with Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama. Students worked with the university researchers to study the properties and characteristics of both cyanobacteria and Martian climatology to develop a series of experiments designed to test their hypothesis.

Since its selection as an ISS research project, the researchers’ article, “Pioneering Mars: Turning the Red Planet Green with Earth's Smallest Settlers,” was featured in the journal, The American Biology Teacher. Additionally, Cwikla attended the third annual ISS Research and Development Conference in Chicago where she highlighted the curriculum developed by the “Pioneering Mars” researchers, which included a comprehensive STEM curriculum guide for middle schools.

“It’s just very interesting, the long-term implications of the work makes the context of Mars interesting and engaging for students,” added Cwikla.

For more information about the Department of Marine Science at Southern Miss, visit www.usm.edu/marine. The “Pioneering Mars” curriculum is available online at www.pioneeringmars.org.

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