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Since the release of the book, “The Martian” (2011) by Andy Weir, and its movie counterpart, science fiction fans everywhere have been asking whether the scenario that played out in the story could really happen. A class at Lycoming College is digging in to find the answer.
Lycoming College’s First Year Seminar, “Life on Mars: Past, Present, and Future” attempts to answer questions such as Was there ever life on Mars? Is there life on Mars now, perhaps deep beneath its red surface? Could there be life on Mars in the future? What would humans have to endure to call Mars home? Led by Emily Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of astrophysics, students in the course will spend the fall semester exploring each of these questions with real astronomical data taken by Martian rovers and orbiters over the past several decades. Discussions will focus on advancements in exploring other planets and the possibility of sustaining human life on Mars in the future.
“Our astronaut, like many of our first-year students, is learning new ways to solve problems, communicate effectively, and yes, even grow potatoes. The class is going to help set them up for collegiate success.”
In “The Martian,” the protagonist is able to survive on Mars in part by growing potatoes. Mirroring the story at times, one of the first tasks the class tackled was to visit the Lycoming College greenhouse to plant their own potatoes, which they will tend throughout the semester. The class will celebrate their harvest later in the fall with a “potato party.”
Other class activities include the creation and use of sundials, visits to the College’s Detwiler Planetarium, and debates about various topics related to life on Mars.
“The First Year Seminar program at Lycoming College aids students as they transition to college-level writing, reading, critical thinking, and independence, all while having a bit of fun! What better way to do that than by reading a science-fiction story about a stranded astronaut?” said Emily Wilson, assistant professor of astrophysics at Lycoming College. “Our astronaut, like many of our first-year students, is learning new ways to solve problems, communicate effectively, and yes, even grow potatoes. The class is going to help set them up for collegiate success.”
“ ‘Life on Mars’ gives us room for imagination. It’s always interesting and fun, and a great way for me to connect me with my peers. Furthermore, it helps me exercise my writing through the reflections we do every week and challenges me to grow as a writer, something that I have discovered can be fun,” said Yahir Jimenez, a computer science major from Houston who is also considering studies in Spanish and accounting.
Angelina Madonna, an astrophysics and Spanish double major from Port Carbon, Pa., who is thinking about adding a minor in the arts, said, “The part of class that I look forward to the most is the discussions we have within the class. It is great to communicate with classmates and to see their perspective on the subject. I am always learning something new, and Dr. Wilson has a fun way of teaching this new material. It’s the little facts that I never knew before that are the most exciting.” Madonna plans to pursue a doctoral degree in astrophysics and a career in a space company, and she feels “Life on Mars” is helping her to prepare by teaching her to think like other astronomers, physicists, and astronauts.
Lindsay Newcomer, a pre-law history major from Muncy, Pa., noted that she’s really enjoyed reading “The Martian,” growing potatoes in different conditions, and creating sundials. “Dr. Wilson goes above and beyond with her slideshows, and her energy is unmatched. She takes an interest in each of her students and encourages fun and spontaneous conversations,” said Newcomer. “This class influenced my studies by making me even more interested in space. The more we discuss, the more I truly want to know.”
“Life on Mars” is just one of Lycoming College’s First-Year Seminars, designed to help students establish the skills necessary to be successful in college by encouraging critical thinking in the classroom and promoting written, oral, and information literacy. Students can broaden their minds and discover a new interest by selecting a First-Year Seminar outside of their primary areas of interest. Each First-Year Seminar meets a general education requirement, so all advance students toward graduation. Other first-year seminars include “Zen and Art,” “Medieval Food and Culture,” “The Pursuit of Happiness,” and many more.