Oakton High Students Build Martian City

Oakton High Students Build Martian City

Ten Oakton High School students recently spent a weekend in Florida, but didn’t have time to do much sightseeing.

The students flew to the Kennedy Space Center, outside of Orlando, for the Ninth Annual International Space Settlement Design Competition. Upon arrival, the students were told they would be designing an 18,000-person city on the surface of Mars. They were given two days to finish the project. Paired with another team from California, the Oakton students holed up in their hotel room and got to work. By the time they were finished, the station proposal was 40 to 50 pages long.

"We slept Saturday night," said team member Peter Gardener. "Half of us slept Sunday night. I didn’t sleep at all until I got on the airplane."

Team member Johanna Campbell, who graduated this past year, said the time constraints were the biggest challenge to the competitors.

"We didn’t know if we could get everything in there in time," Campbell said. "But, we basically did."

Gardener, who graduated from Oakton this year, was the only team member who had competed previously in the space design competition. He transferred to Oakton this past year, coming from a Houston school where he first participated in the competition. When he came to Oakton, Gardener tried to convince AP Physics teacher Steve Scholla to sponsor the mars settlement team. Scholla was already sponsoring other extra-curricular activities, and he "wasn’t necessarily looking for a new project."

"But, he made a pretty convincing argument," Scholla said.

To qualify for the competition, the students first had to design a space station orbiting Mars. There were no time constraints on the qualifying project, but it was due by April 3. Eight finalist teams were selected for the Florida competition. The Oakton team did not take first place, but Gardener said the experience was still valuable.

"This was the fourth team I’ve been on, and it was the best I’ve ever been on," he said. "We worked well together, there were only a couple of personality conflicts and those were dealt with. The only thing that would have been better would be if we won."

Jaime Schmieg, another team member, agreed that the project was worthwhile. She liked the sense of accomplishment stemming from the experience.

"It was fun when it was all over," Schmieg said. "It was a good pay-off."

Oakton principal Charlie Ostlund said his students participate in several physics competitions, and are consistently successful. He mentioned projects in which students have built robots, and designed Web sites. For the last five years, Ostlund said, Oakton has won the statewide Junior Engineering Technology Society (J.E.T.S.) competition.

"Physics is not everyone’s cup of tea," Ostlund said. "But I’ll come up here [to Scholla’s classroom] on a Sunday, and the room is filled with kids working on different projects. That speaks to the fact that Mr. Scholla creates an environment really conducive to learning."