A Bold Undertaking
Rachelle Garbarine

It is a bold undertaking: Build a replica of NASA’s Mars Rover and give it such Gibbons touches as a name, voice, and arm. A team of aspiring student engineers accepted that challenge and have been creating the rover over the last five months while having fun, involving the entire school community, and establishing a legacy.

Essentially, the rover will be completed this month, in time for it to be part of Astronomy Days, January 26 and 27, at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Its voice and arm, however, will be added in the near future.

The idea for the rover started last August when Gibbons Science Educator Diane Ripollone spotted an item in a NASA newsletter. It detailed how the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) released plans for a rover would-be astronauts could build using commercial parts and following an instruction manual.

Ripollone, Gibbons parent John Toebes, her co-moderator of the school’s Robotics Club, and Principal Jason D. Curtis, jumped at the opportunity, which The Cardinal Gibbons Fund made possible for students. “The added hope,” she said, “is that the rover will be part of the school community forever.”

To build the rover, JPL’s plans call for a simplified version of the original journeying around the red planet.

 Still, Ripollone said, the rover the students are building is a finely detailed model made of metal with 3-D plastic parts and a head with a LED-lighted face that students can control or program to run.

The students, members of the robotics team or the physics and space explorers’ clubs, are enjoying the real-world experience of building the rover. Learning in such an environment creates instant engagement, Ripollone said, adding that while a dozen students are involved in the construction, the project is reaching hundreds, including alumni.

Students also are going beyond what is required by hopefully adding voice and an arm to their rover, which they jokingly say will bring Mr. Curtis coffee. They also have been revising portions of the instruction manual, “to document our process in working out problems … and to help other students,” noted Mihir Nagaraj ’19. He, Peter Jackson ’19, and Jonathan Heinske ’21, lead the student rover team. The trio will post revisions, helpful hints, and suggestions on an online forum for students in other high schools to follow.

Building the rover comes with challenges, which have included dealing with the wiring and electrical systems as well asprogrammingg code. Yet, all involved with the project agree, there have been far more rewards. Among them are seeing the project evolve from thousands of pieces to a functioning rover; as well as exploring a possible career path. All three student leaders are contemplating studying engineering in college. The collaboration that has taken place along the way is another plus.

A key goal of the rover project has been to involve as many school groups as possible. For instance, tech theater students built a mock Mars terrain to test the replica’s mobility and functionality. And Gibbons’ academic team is sponsoring a rover naming contest.

In the afternoon of January 9th Ripollone will skype with JPL Data Scientist Michael Cox, an architect of the build-a-rover-plan, reinforcing the real-world lessons students have experienced since beginning the project. She also plans to reinforce those lessons by bringing the science they are learning into the classroom. Mindful of that, she is working with the Arizona State University Advisory Board to develop a lesson plan that blends the physics of the rover with the geology of Mars.

Ultimately, the hope is to share the lessons learned from the building process with Gibbons’ Catholic middle school partners by incorporating the rover into the curriculum for robotics camp this summer. Other outreach efforts include taking the rover to area middle schools, with one of the first planned stops at St. Mary School in Goldsboro.

So, what message does the rover project send? “It shows that if you put your mind to it, “said Jonathan, “you can accomplish almost anything you want to do.” Mihir added, “it is cool to see what can happen when Gibbons comes together as a community.”  “And,” Peter noted, “it showcases the opportunities Gibbons offers its students.”

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