Students from Columbia Heights Educational Campus, a middle school, in Northwest Washington, D.C. turned into scientists as a mobile bus turned into Mars on Dec. 11.

Columbia Heights Educational Campus students were amongst the first in the nation to experience the new mobile explorer, a part of the Verizon Innovative Learning program that provides students with access to technology and STEM education.

Students and staff at Columbia Heights Educational Campus Middle School try out the new Verizon Innovative Learning sponsored explorer lab. (Photo by Brianna Rhodes)

“It’s all about reinforcing that engineering curriculum and the idea is to let students know that engineering can be fun because a lot of students don’t understand engineering or they think it’s very boring,” Carrie Hughes, director of strategy and operations for the  Verizon Foundation, told the AFRO.

The mobile explorer enables students to be transported to simulated environments such as Mars and the solar system to experience the mobile bus high-tech features. The features include a 360 degree movie-quality video, special effects and hands-on educational gaming to help students feel like real life scientists and explorers.

The project started about and a year and half ago with the goal of offering an experience to students that was mobile and to visit a large number of schools to help bring excitement around STEM and technology, according to Hughes.

“After this experience when they’ve designed their Rover and changed things out on their Rover to go over the Mars terrain, Hughes said, then we take them back to the classroom and do follow up activities that basically say you just did engineering.”

Eighth grade student Ivone Cherif said she enjoyed the 360 degree quality video that transports students to Mars on the bus.

“I thought that was the best,” she said. “It was fun. When I first got on it, it was surprising because I didn’t know the bus would have that.”

Cherif said while on the mobile explorer, she and her classmates designed the Rovers and placed them on Mars to collect data to study it and see if there was life or water. She said her experience made her want to go home and do more research on Mars.

Verizon prioritized bringing the hands-on tech opportunity to Title 1 schools like Columbia Heights to help introduce STEM to students who might not have access. All of the students at the school are on the free/reduced lunch program and about 30 percent of students are English language learners. The school is also 62 percent Hispanic and 32 percent Black.

Krishunda Penn Pearson, an eighth grade Algebra I teacher, said she thought it was important for students to have this experience because it gives them exposure.

“When I went to college this wasn’t the normal thing,” Pearson said. “I wanted to be a lawyer. I didn’t know that I could major in computer [science] or I could do all of these type of things because we weren’t exposed to those things. These kids can be the next person to create anything, but we have to give them that space in school to do it because sometimes they don’t have that space at home to.”

In 2017, Verizon invested $8.2 million in Washington, D.C. to expose public school students to STEM education through the various Verizon Innovative Learning programs. The programs have enabled them to reach 1,010 students and 299 teachers.

The new explorer lab will be at Columbia Heights Educational Campus until this Dec. 14. The goal is for the mobile lab to reach every public middle school in D.C. from now until June of 2018, in hopes of reaching more than 5,000 students in the sixth-eighth grades.