AFRL STEM Academy returns to in-person annual Mission to Mars event

  • Published
  • By Jeanne Dailey
  • Air Force Research Laboratory
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, STEM Academy held its 28th annual Mission to Mars Link-up Day April 19, 2022, at the Albuquerque Convention Center. It was an especially exciting occasion since the events in 2020 and 2021 were held as virtual gatherings only, due to coronavirus restrictions. 
More than 450 fifth graders from 15 New Mexico schools, and home school families, took part in the state’s premier STEM event.
“Mission to Mars” is part of the AFRL STEM Academy’s K-12 outreach program, which provides hands-on opportunities for students to apply STEM content and make connections to careers. In addition, 109 students from another four schools joined the gathering, virtually.
“Over the past 28 years, nearly 20,000 New Mexico students have taken part in this simulated, manned exploration of Mars,” said Ronda Cole Harmon, director of the AFRL STEM Academy. “Students in upper elementary grades are starting to examine their place in the world and their dreams for the future. Providing hands-on opportunities for them to explore STEM topics, can introduce them to new possibilities for their futures.”
In preparation for link-up day, students spent several months learning about Mars and what it would take to support life on the most comparable planet to Earth. Their goal was to take all they had learned and simulate a visit to Mars.
Dressed in team T-shirts , students presented technical briefings about their life-support systems, verified their meals were nutritious, and built suitable habitats to live in on Mars, to AFRL scientist and engineer volunteers, serving as “mission commanders” and judges.
Harmon said Mission to Mars is special in that it “brings learning to life.” She explained that students expand their technical knowledge, use their creativity in building their colonies and in creating mission patches and writing sagas, combined with learning about teamwork and opening their minds to STEM careers.
Harmon said she and her team were thrilled to be able to return to an in-person event this year.
“When things shutdown in March 2020 due to the pandemic, we had to cancel our 2019-2020 school year Mission to Mars Link-Up Day,”  Harmon said. “It was very challenging, but we changed course and created a virtual culminating event, though we basically had to start over with individual students, rather than classrooms.”
For the 2020-2021 school year, the AFRL STEM Academy planned for an all virtual event with increased participation since they were able to involve classrooms again.
“We revamped our website to have student-focused Mission to Mars information and activities,” she said. “The culminating virtual event was better attended and had more student engagement than our first virtual event, though it paled compared to the in-person event. Returning to the Convention Center this year was fantastic for the students, teachers and AFRL STEM Academy!”
Harmon said some of the participating schools were unable to attend this year in-person due to pandemic circumstances, so the academy  took what they had learned from two years of virtual events and offered ways for students to participate remotely and interact with students who were part of the in-person event.  
“At the end of the day each year, I always ask students about their experience and what their favorite part of link-up day was,” Harmon said. “Hands-down they reply, ‘building the habitat.’ When I ask them ‘Why?’ the typical answer is ‘because we didn’t think we could do it.’ This year was no exception.”
About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: