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Mars Academy // Underwater Brazil

June 21 2015

From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the underwater wonderland of the Brazilian coast and the dusty plains of Mars, we will involve a classroom of local students in the power of scientific exploration and give them the tools for a lifetime of discovery.

June 21 2015


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Debriefing Stage

Our time in a Brazil with a fantastic group of students ended about a year ago, but we've been busy evaluating the program, improving the curriculum, and finding ways to tell the kids' stories. The highlights:

1) Our partners at USC's Rossier School of Education conducted an analysis of students' pre- and post-tests to show statistically significant educational gains following the Mars Academy program. Not only did the students learn about the scientific process, the ocean, and outer space, but they also demonstrated a greater sense of purpose and agency in improving their communities through science.

2) Hank and our film team have been hard at work on a feature-length documentary. Check out the extended trailer below!

3) We're planning future Mars Academy experiences for children around the world, so stay tuned for our next journey of exploratory education!

Mission Underway

It's been a while since you heard from us, but the second week of Mars Academy Brazil was recently completed! During the first week, back in June, our amazing class of 18 students in the City of God was preparing to pitch NASA scientists on imaging targets around Mars. The Skype presentations were ultimately reviewed by HiRISE camera operators; the science passed muster, and the observations were incorporated into the spacecraft's planned observations...awaiting enactment hundreds of millions of miles away...

In the meantime, the international Mars Academy team (Paul, Carolyn, Wlad, Hank, and Jeff) returned to their lives of research and film production. During periodic meetings, we plotted the next round of activities and discussed ways to enhance the program's impact for the kids. The incredible team of local researchers we had recruited to help with translation and teaching continued to visit the school, offering weekly lessons about science, space, and astronomy.

...And during those intervening months, the HiRISE camera acquired three very special images - photographs requested by the Mars Academy students based on their knowledge of and curiosity about the Red Planet. Last week, the students were the first people to examine these unseen corners of the universe, and we look forward to sharing their findings with you. Part 2 of the Mars Academy also included a field trip to the local rain forest and additional classroom activities to capitalize on the scientific method lessons we have shared and bolster the students' innate curiosity.

Our film team is hard at work compiling the students' inspirational stories, demonstrating how exploration of their school, nearby natural wonders, and the planet Mars expanded their view of what is possible. In the meantime, enjoy the sneak peak video (posted above) from our first week in Brazil, expertly edited by Hank Leukart.

Preparation Stage

Many hours and several partially superglued fingers later, we've got an (at least partially) operational ROV! The traditional bathtub test went well, and we should be graduating to open water within a week or two.

Meanwhile, we've developed an exciting exploration-based curriculum for our excited students in Rio. Just a few weeks until Mars Academy becomes a reality!


Preparation for our project is going well here in Pasadena - we've re-christened the project "Mars Academy" to highlight the role the students will have in exploring the solar system and have shared the story with news outlets around the world.

But Mars is far away, and not always that easy to comprehend as a real place. To bridge that gap and present the inspirational power of exploration, we will take the students on a field trip to a nearby island, using an OpenROV to characterize the underwater world and practice the scientific method.

The OpenROV assembly effort has begun, and we're looking forward to getting it in the water around LA. After some practice, we'll be ready to jump into the Atlantic Ocean in late June, with some very energetic students!

This is fantastic! Let us know when you test in LA, a few explorers and I have talked about doing some human impact survey's around the LA river, would love to be a part of when/where you test! I'll come film!

Hey Erika - awesome, it would be great to join forces for our LA test! Looking like it should be last weekend of May or second week of June, and we'll have a school group along for the ride. Shoot me a note at to coordinate!

How is the build going?! I'm getting closer to coming to LA now. Looking forward to a potential expedition team up!

We should be putting the finishing touches on ROV #1 this evening, and probably ready to test second week of June? What is your LA schedule looking like?!

Expedition Background

The gulf between the leading edge of discovery 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 the City of God favela in Rio de Janeiro and work with local teachers to provide a week of hands-on lessons centered around habitability, environmental and ecological science, and our place in the universe. 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. This experience will teach the tools of scientific exploration, data collection, and careful observation. We will catalog the number of species the students observe underwater at multiple locations, demonstrating links between pollution, urban sprawl, and biodiversity.

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 enacted by mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. 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 favela students will make a real 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 oceanographic discovery and interplanetary 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 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.


Beautiful picture and great project!

Holy molasses. 1) This is stunning and compelling writing, I am inspired. 2) I know exactly what you are aiming for with getting these students out into the field. These parts of the world and economic demographics focus very diligently in academic, hardcore book learning, fieldwork is often impossible.

I greatly look forward to following every detail. Thank you for sharing!

This is so exciting!! I am currently in Rio myself, using my OpenROV in a project on environmental monitoring, working together with students from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). These students are great, hardworking and, as you say, fueled with a thirst for exploration. To give them the opportunity to participate on a real project with such an exciting objective will be an invaluable experience:)

Please contact me if we can collaborate or you need some helping hands (I would love to be a part of this adventure).

Hey chspiten! Sorry for my very slow response, but it would be great to hear what you've been up to in the Rio area. Are you still there? We're starting to plan our field trip and it would be great to chat! (Feel free to email me at