The concept of place as an organizing principle for teaching geoscience can be extremely effective and powerful. However, one general problem is that many students tend to think that their local region or state, their “backyard,” simply cannot be very interesting because it is local. At the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science we have attempted to solve that problem by emphasizing New Mexico as an analog to Mars, and by making use of this museum’s statewide geological knowledge and direct connection to Mars missions, data, and images. Mars is an exciting and exotic planet that recently has been featured in popular books and movies. The ongoing NASA Mars missions have also captivated the public, and provided a natural link and a ready-made audience for successful science education. How many times have you heard someone praise the beauty and wonder of a landscape by saying, “it looks like another planet.” Imagine the power of students looking at their own region as though they were astronaut geologists sent to study another planet. With an overall theme of Mars and New Mexico
we have used the power of place-based geology to emphasize basic geoscience and New Mexico local/regional geology for all age groups, while leveraging the excitement of solar system exploration to enhance learning about our own region.
The Mars and New Mexico program includes a unique exhibit, hands-on visitor station, public lectures, outreach programs, teacher workshops, summer science camps, high school student research projects, bilingual (Spanish/English) family events and activities, and a strong partnership with a regional Native American high school and Native American college. We have partnered with other science education providers and school districts to make maximum use of resources, and we have involved elementary to high school teachers in the development of our programs and materials. Mars and New Mexico has been tested over the past decade and participation has totaled 10,000 adults and children, resulting in an increase in both the number and type of audiences we have reached. We have shown that the strength of students’ interest in Mars and Mars missions can be successfully used to teach New Mexico geoscience in a way that is interesting and relevant to local students.