Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

High school students are studying landscape features on Mars to learn more about the Red Planet's climate history. Photo credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

Wei Luo
Wei Luo

Kathleen Kitts
Kathleen Kitts

To obtain a print-quality JPEG of this photo, contact the Office of Public Affairs at (815) 753-1681 or e-mail

News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

January 8, 2008

Did it ever rain on Mars? High school students
are using NASA data to research the question

DeKalb, Ill. — Did it ever rain on Mars? Scientists have conducted research on the topic and debated the question for decades. Now high school students, using data from NASA, will be launching their own investigations.

Students at nearly a dozen schools—from Libertyville to Maple Park to Naperville—will study the planet using an online lesson plan developed by Northern Illinois University faculty researchers. A determination of whether it rained on Mars would have important implications in the study of whether the planet ever could have supported life.

The lesson is geared for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors. Any teacher can use the demo and/or sign up for an actual section of Mars to study at

“This is an ideal topic to engage students in the process of conducting scientific research because it is still hotly debated, leaving room for students to make real contributions through their own observation and analysis of data,” said Wei Luo, an NIU professor of geography.

“It’s quite possible that students will make some discoveries that researchers overlooked,” he added. “Mars is a large planet.”

Development of the lesson plan is an extension of Luo’s own NASA-funded research into the origin of valley networks or river-like landforms on Mars, which has implications on climate history of the Red Planet. He and Professor Kathy Kitts, who coordinates certification of science teachers in NIU’s Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, developed the online lesson using Geographic Information Systems.

The NIU faculty members led a workshop this past fall for 16 high school and student teachers from across the region.The Mars lesson already has received excellent reviews from the students of Matt Leone, who teaches earth science at Libertyville High School and piloted the Mars lesson last spring.

Leone said he’s recommending it to other teachers.

“The kids think it’s great because it’s new and they’re actually doing research, rather than learning about somebody else’s (findings),” he said, noting that the lesson also is aligned with state standards.

“It fits perfectly into my curriculum,” Leone added. “We cover planetary geology and we also cover surface and groundwater processes, so students are applying knowledge that they’ve already learned in class.”

Students receive a section of Mars to study, along with its related topography and satellite imagery. They must determine whether valley networks in their section were formed predominantly by flowing rivers or by the action of groundwater, a process of erosion known as groundwater sapping.

“If surface runoff is the dominant erosion style on Mars, then it most likely points to an early warmer and wetter climate with an Earth-like hydrologic cycle, including rainfall,” Luo said. “On the other hand, if groundwater sapping is the dominant erosion style, the valley networks could have been formed under current climatic conditions, perhaps under a thick ice cover.”

With the teachers acting as facilitators, the students will extract information from the data, interpret their results, post them to a server and debate their findings with students working on the same section and on other sections.

After appropriate review, the students’ work will be saved in a permanent workspace on the server for all in the scientific community to access.

“I think the students are going to love it,” said Liz Losch, who teaches Ecological Biology and Dynamic Earth Systems at Naperville Central High School. She participated in the fall workshop and plans to use the Mars lesson in February.

“This is a great example of inquiry-based science, where the answers are not always black and white,” she adds. “It gets students to think outside of the box and be more complex thinkers. It also helps them construct ideas about how science is used in real life. Students are definitely interested in the possibility of life outside of our planet, allowing them to think critically about similar topics.”

NIU faculty researchers ultimately hope to stimulate the students’ interest in science.

“The whole point of this is that the students can do real research,” said NIU’s Kitts. “We want to get them interested in science and show them that they really can do it.”

Both Luo and Kitts note the Mars project is truly a team effort. Professor Wei-Chen Hung from the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment provided his expertise in assessment, and NIU research scientists Phil Young and Rick Schwantes in the Department of Geography assisted in development of the Web site. A number of graduate students also contributed to the lesson-plan development.