A dozen NASA-sponsored high school sophomores built functional Mars rovers this week near Canyon Ferry Reservoir at a camp for students interested in science, technology, engineering and math careers.

While the robots built by the high-schoolers were much smaller than the one-ton rovers currently cruising around the red planet, they were programmed to drive around, avoid obstacles and snap photos of rock samples.

The three-day camp is a hands-on culmination of an online course run through the University of Washington. This is the first year the Western Aerospace Scholars program was offered to Montana sophomores, Montana Learning Center director Ryan Hannahoe said. Hannahoe, a Clancy Elementary School teacher, has a background in aerospace and helped host and run the camp.

Jasmine Wilkerson, a sophomore from Helena who hopes for a future in medicine, said she was excited to be learning about how great of an impact NASA research has on every aspect of society. She mentioned the super-strong textiles invented as airbag cushions for rovers dropped on the surface of Mars.

“The same fabric, which is woven with steel, is now used as body armor for law enforcement officers,” Wilkerson said. “The taxes and funding that go towards NASA contribute so much more than just putting people in space.”

The mini-rovers are built with Lego’s robotics-focused products, mounted with a smartphone and controlled by programs written by students on a tablet. Once students sat down with their tools and computers, they had the rovers built and programmed to independently operate within an hour.

The attendants of this year’s program were mainly chosen by science teachers across Montana. In rural places like Montana, young people who are interested in STEM careers can have limited opportunities for advancement within their own school, said Melissa Edwards, who is leading the program in partnership with UW and The Museum of Flight in Seattle.

“This is really just a taste of what is ahead for these gifted students,” Edwards said. “Sophomore participants are automatically eligible for the junior level program, which is more intensive and earns students five college credits from the University of Washington.”

The program is totally free to students, but they must work on the online segment throughout the school year. Three Forks sophomore Cora Taylor, tasked with making sure the rovers stay financially solvent, said it takes a special type of student to put in the extracurricular work to succeed.

“It’s hard to fit in time to write essays and do the math work in addition to school and homework,” Taylor said. “But I guess that’s why we all get along so well here. We’re all pretty nerdy.”

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