Skip To Main Content

Find It Fast

Culver students research whether they could survive on Mars for a year

Tom Coyne

Instructor Jackie Carrillo, Ph.D., who also is dean of studies, works with Sean Woodmansee '24 on an experiment in the "Mission to Mars" class. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


NASA has spent years studying what it would take to survive on Mars. Students at Culver Academies are tackling the same problem, researching ways to grow food on the red planet and how much oxygen and water they would need to survive for a year.

Students say the class, “Mission to Mars: The Biology and Chemistry of Living on Mars,” taught by Dean of Studies Jackie Carrillo, Ph.D., is a favorite because they have so much independence to explore.

 “I like that instead of us sitting in class and learning from a teacher explaining stuff on the board, the teacher gives us the resources to experiment and teach ourselves,” said Charlie Joyce ’24.

The elective science class is loosely based on the book “The Martian,” written by Andy Weir. In the book, which was later turned into a movie starring Matt Damon, astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally left behind on Mars for 564 days and must use his knowledge, skills and creativity to survive until he can be rescued.

In the class, students must use their knowledge, skills and creativity to see whether they could survive on Mars for a year while waiting to be rescued. The students must determine how much food, water and oxygen they will need, and then research whether they can meet those needs.

The class has a bit of an honors-level feel to it because each student is working individually on a project, although the level of work is not expected to be on an honors level – where students are expected to complete college level research. In Mission to Mars, each student is part of a group trying to find solutions, and the groups are working together to accomplish the goal of surviving on Mars.


Albert Lu '26 measures the pH level of a mixture of dried horse manure and dirt. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Carrillo gets the students started on a topic, such as creating water, and provides them foundational material. Then they must do research on their own and find answers.

“That feels authentic to me to the way science happens. They’re going to have to do some learning on their own,” she said.

The students are divided into groups. One group is working on growing foods and determining which foods can produce enough calories, another group is working to determine whether a machine that generates 700 liters of oxygen a day is enough, and another group is determining how to make more water for themselves and their plants and how much water each person needs.

The class, which has been taught since 2017, has changed over the years.

Carrillo said previously students had set labs they had to perform to determine whether they could survive. This year she set up the class differently, where students divided into groups and each student takes on a specific challenge.

“The groups got together and said, ‘These are the things we need to answer. You two work on this part of the problem and we'll work on this part of the problem,” Carrillo said.

Each student has to submit a research proposal, where they specify what problem they will be trying to solve, why it needs solving, and how they will  go about trying to solve it.

“They’re thinking about, ‘Is this the best way to do this? What can I do to make this a better experiment’,” Carrillo said. “It’s not as straightforward as they think.”


Students in "Mission to Mars" work on experiments while talking with instructor Jackie Carrillo, Ph.D., who also is dean of studies. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


The classroom is bustling with activity. Albert Lu ’26 is measuring the pH level of a mixture of dried horse manure (in place of human waste) and dirt as he seeks the most viable soil for growing food. Henry Booth ’24 is exploring which growth light bulb works best. Joyce is studying how temperature affects the growth of pumpkin seeds.

At the other end of the classroom, Annie Samis ’25 and Mia Siedentopf ’25 are gathering data on how much water their classmates consume a day so they will know how much water they will need. Ansen King ’24 is trying to determine how much oxygen each person will need a day. Eduardo De La Vega ’24 is researching how much water different types of soil retain.

“I’m seeing that horse manure retains a lot of water so it could be good for us to grow plants in because we don’t want to waste water,” he said.

Students like that they are given so much freedom to explore.

“It's your own style of learning.” Booth said. “I got to find my own articles. I got to find videos. It definitely promotes learning because it's not just regurgitating information the teacher tells you. It's you actually making the connections.”

Numerous students said they feel like they are teaching themselves. Carrillo loves that.

 “Having to figure it out on your own because you need to know it for a certain reason is much more likely to stay with them in the long run,” she said. “I hope they’re learning skills that are helpful later.”

Carrillo said what she hopes students get from the course is an understanding of how science works and what the scientific process is.

“That includes justifying why your work is worth doing,” she said.

She said she knows by doing more focused research the students won’t be doing as diverse experiments as previous students have.

“My hope is that that they learn their topic in more detail and have more depth of understanding of their particular topic,” she said. “Most importantly, I think for me, is their understanding the scientific process and that it's very messy.”

She said in a recent assignment several students wrote that they thought that in science there was one correct way of finding an answer. She said the class taught them that there’s more than one way to find an answer.

“And that something that seems simple is actually pretty complicated when you try to answer even what seems like a simple question,” she said.


Instructor Jackie Carrillo, Ph.D., talks with students reviewing data. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Carrillo said the students are also required to go beyond the basics. Such as the students trying to determine how much water each person needs, they must explain what will happen if someone doesn’t get enough water.

“It's not enough to say, ‘You're going to get dehydrated.’ OK, what does that mean? What exactly isn't working and what's happening,” she said.

The class is set up so they should be able to survive – but just barely, Carrillo said.

During the last week of class they will work on a proposal about their survival plans and present those to a team of other Culver science teachers posing as NASA experts.

“The NASA panel is going to tell them, ‘Yes, you survived to make it onto the rocket ship,’ or, ‘No, you perished on Mars,’ ” Carrillo said.

That doesn’t determine their grades, however. Each student must turn in their findings and the work they did to reach that conclusi0n. That is what their grades will be based on.

Many students said they took the class because it sounded compelling.

“I just I thought it'd be really fun,” said Aiden Froh ’24, who read the book and saw the movie.

Joyce said there was a simple reason he took the class.

“I wanted to see if I could survive on Mars,” he said.


Aiden Froh '24 works on calibrating a calorimeter, which measures the amount of heat involved in a chemical reaction. (Photo by Tom Coyne)


Subscribe to our Newsletter


The Culver Cannon Newsletter is sent out weekly on Fridays.

More Recent News