Destination Mars: Vail Mountain School’s Pilot Program leaves the launch pad |

Destination Mars: Vail Mountain School’s Pilot Program leaves the launch pad

Will Brendza
Special to the Daily
Vali Mountain School's Pilot Program encourages middle school students to follow their dreams, and helps them create the steps to get there.
Vail Mountain School photo

VAIL — Sometimes, if you want to fly to the stars, you have to start in the basement.

Vail Mountain School’s new Pilot Program lets students explore challenging problems through their own skills and interests — and yes, the 12 middle school students meet in the VMS basement.

The Pilot Program is being developed by VMS Middle School Director Kabe ErkenBrack and Lead Teacher John Jessup.

“It really started with this idea that we should be teaching kids wisdom and not knowledge,” ErkenBrack said. “I wanted to create a situation where kids could engage in the questions they’ve always been interested in but never had a way to talk about in schools.”

As a prerequisite, students have to pitch their passions, demonstrating why they would be good matches for the program. They made videos or artwork that said something about themselves, created hashtags that described who they were and, finally, answered the question: “When you daydream, who do you hope to become and what steps will you take to get there?”

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The path to Mars is an Arc

Students dive into a different problem called an Arc — a general theme in which students solve problems according to their own interests and skills. ErkenBrack and Jessup came up with the Arc idea when they visited BrightWorks in San Francisco.

“We let them decide what their specialty is,” Jessup said. “The students pick an angle to approach the Arc that they think best fits their interests and abilities. They think about their skills, think about their passions and then consider how they can fit that in with the Arc.”

For the first quarter of this year, the 12 students were asked: “How could you survive on Mars together for 730 days?”

Students came up with projects ranging from engineering a Mars expedition research vehicle that runs on nuclear and solar energy to designing the habitat within which their community would survive and thrive on the Martian tundra.

Sammie Shim’s passion is writing. Shim created a chronicle of their adventure on Mars told through journal entries for each student in the group. She interviewed all 11 of her peers so she could write in their individual voices. To help her with planning and continuity, she used a nearby wall, masking tape and Post-It notes to lay it all out as a 25-foot timeline.

The group’s animal lovers, Lily Thomas and Sage Evans, worked on the logistics and ethics of bringing animals to Mars. Thomas designed a habitat for chickens and dogs they intended to bring with them. Among the questions she grappled with was what to do with the waste. What could not be used for fertilizer would be stored and brought back to Earth, similar to backcountry “leave no trace” ethics.

Evans worked on spacesuits for dogs.

“Sage reached out to a professor of aerospace engineering at (University of Colorado) Boulder who actually has experience designing space suits,” Jessup said.

“He gave me a whole bunch of information about what you need in a space suit and explained what I’d need to have in one designed for dogs,” Evans said.

As a rehearsal, Evans and Thomas brought their pets to school to see how they would react to a new environment.

“They’re both interested in veterinary medicine, so we challenged them to take it to the next level and learn about the chemical reactions in the brain that result from stress. As a result, they now know what cortisol is and how it affects behavior,” Jessup said.

Directing their own learning

The students start the Arc with a declaration, or a project proposal. They outline in depth what questions they want to answer. Then they launch into documentation and research, logging their progress and accomplishments daily.

“We want them to really dive into something and become an expert in it,” Jessup said.

Eddie Alrick’s passion is all things cars, so he created the drawings of their Mars vehicle. He’s also a talented artist and developed detailed, scale drawings of MERV, the Mars exploration and research vehicle.

Gracie Johnson wondered about boredom and how you would spend your time on Mars. Her passion is dance, so she focused on mental and physical health. She designed a space for exercise within the “hab” and created a mental health journal that the space travelers will use to record, monitor, reflect on and maintain their emotional balance.

Students in the Pilot Program will still be a part of some traditional classes, as well, in addition the pilot cohort.

“They are learning content like science, math and English, and they are building skills like communication, cooperation, creativity, patience,” Jessup said. “Not only that, but there is a lot of teamwork and collaboration going on.”

Students have discovered that their projects are interwoven with other students’ and that they can be most effective when they work together.

At the end of each quarter of the school year, Pilot Program students present their final Mars projects to peers, parents, teachers and school administrators.

“It’s a public product,” Jessup said.

“Essentially, we’ve created a lab school within our school,” ErkenBrack said. “We really want to be a central location for project-based learning and plan to share everything that we’re doing with other teachers.”

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