With NASA set to launch its latest robotic mission to the Red Planet, South Carolina 4-H Youth Development is giving young people a chance to take their own “Journey to Mars” through a program aimed at enhancing computational thinking skills and promoting computer science literacy.

Promotional graphic for "Journey to Mars" programThe primary goal of the Mars 2020 mission — scheduled to blast off between July 30 and Aug. 15, bound for the Jezero Crater on Mars — is seeking signs of ancient life on the planet. But it will also gather information to help scientists with a problem they’ve been working to solve for decades: one day allowing humans to explore its inhospitable landscape.

And much like NASA’s plans for its Perseverance Rover, the 4-H “Journey to Mars” program is all about solving problems, too.

“Computational thinking skills are a new way to look at developing problem-solving skills within the framework of certain things that relate well to computer science,” said S.C. 4-H Assistant Director Ashley Burns said. “Computer science is one of those trades and career paths that is hugely popular right now, and the computational thinking skills that this program focuses on are a great way to get invested. Even though these are unplugged activities for the most part, they still reinforce the same problem-solving concepts and train your brain to think in a certain way that will help you in all aspects of life.”

Funded through a National 4-H Council grant made possible with support by Google ($20,000), “Journey to Mars” brings computational skills programming to youth across the country, equipping the next generation with the foundational skills they need to lead, innovate and problem-solve across a number of disciplines.

Because of the challenges to in-person educational programs during the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers created two delivery methods for the learning: physical packets and the online “Journey to Mars: At Home.”

The first delivery mode for “Journey to Mars” is a kit-based program that supplies youth with almost everything they need to complete the eight activities described in a mission manual (more than six hours of programming potential). Approximately 700 kits were assembled and disseminated to 29 county offices and military 4-H programs that requested them for local coordination and distribution.

But because demand for the program has exceeded the number of physical kits available, a “Journey to Mars: At Home” version was also created and shared around the same learning outcomes. Youth can embark on a virtual journey with five lessons that are embedded in an interactive Qualtrics survey with videos, activities and reflection. Activities are completed online and with materials commonly found in a home; therefore, no materials are provided.

“Journey to Mars: At Home” are interactive links to a series of five different lessons that include embedded activities:

Youth can participate in one or both of the delivery modes. No activity is duplicated between the two versions, but they reinforce similar learning outcomes and revolve around the same Mars theme. The excitement surrounding the historic launch and the planned release of Mars Basecamp National 4-H STEM Challenge make this an opportune time for the “Journey to Mars” program.

“Even if you’re not in a community that has kits available, you can do our online version — which I’m actually very partial to because you can have all the materials at your fingertips at home and still engage with all these cool videos and activities that are embedded and be part of a great cohort,” Burns said. “Because they can even post their stuff on social media and tag us in it, and then we’ll know that they’ve been a part of this initiative.”