A multidisciplinary team at Western has received $400,000 from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to develop educational programming that aims to excite youth about space exploration and inspire them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The vision of the program is to raise awareness and excitement in youth, grades six to 12, around Canada’s participation in the exploration of the moon through an immersive, inquiry-based learning experience using real robotics hardware, software and artificial intelligence (AI). Teachers will be trained and provided with resources to increase their knowledge, skills and enthusiasm for teaching STEM topics to young Canadians.
“We’re very excited and grateful for this grant,” said principal investigator, Jayshri Sabarinathan, associate director of training for the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space). “It’s a great time in space exploration and Canadians have an active role in this global endeavor in both the commercial and government fields.”
Sabarinathan and her colleagues from Western Space and the faculties of engineering and science, are working with five industry partners on the project: Mission Control Space Services Inc., Ingenium, steamlabs, Exploring by the Seat of your Pants, MDA.
The project will educate youth and teachers about Canadarm3, Canada’s contribution to the U.S.-led Gateway, a lunar outpost that will enable sustainable human exploration of the Moon. This highly autonomous robotic system will use cutting-edge software to perform tasks around the Moon, including maintaining, repairing and inspecting the gateway, and enabling scientific exploration in lunar orbit and on the surface of the Moon.
“Artificial intelligence is being used in every sector of society, particularly in robotics on Earth,” Sabarinathan said. “We don’t see it widely in space robotics yet, but with the Lunar Gateway program and Canadarm3, we’re going to see more AI capabilities in these sectors. We want to raise awareness of not just what Canada is doing, but the opportunities our youth will have in the space sector in the future, and get them excited about what they can do with their careers down the road.”
Sabarinathan and her team are currently in the most intense phase of the initiative. Project manager Eric Pilles is coordinating with all partners to plan a program that will include a website with interactive content, and an in-class component where students can develop prototypes through build-your-own robotic arm kits.
The project will adapt work currently done by Mission Control Academy, the educational outreach program of Mission Control Space Services Inc. The Academy uses a simulated rover mission to challenge participants to design and operate a planetary exploration mission of their own, culminating in an opportunity to remotely drive a real rover prototype in a Mars-like environment.
“We will adapt what they have been doing with the Mission Control Academy to give users an opportunity to operate a real robotic arm that will be deployed in a lab and attached to a scale model of the Lunar Gateway,” Sabarinathan said. “This will replicate the operation of the Canadarm3 and will provide students with an immersive understanding of the AI behind its operation.”
Western Engineering’s outreach program will be highly involved in developing two high school activities that focus on building and coding students’ mini rovers, and AI in space.
“We’re excited to be part of this amazing team in delivering space activities and curriculum to youth and their teachers,” said Joanne Moniz, manager, outreach and recruitment (undergraduate and graduate). “These activities will also come with teacher curriculum guides and training, so that classes can grow their confidence in STEM.”
Western Space outreach coordinator Sara Mohamed is excited by the experiential aspects of the project. “It gives the students a real hands-on experience, and a chance for educators to teach the content, beyond a lecture format, by involving their students in creating something more practical,” she said.
She and Sabarinathan have noticed a growing public interest in space activity in light of Canada’s involvement in recent explorations and innovations.
“There’s never been a time like this,” Sabarinathan said. “With the James Webb telescope going up, and Canada’s upcoming involvement with the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis missions, more people are becoming enthusiastic about our work in space.
“Even if two or three students who never knew these opportunities existed before become aware and inspired, it will be worth it.”