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ASU ignites China's youth for Mars exploration

November 20, 2007

To view the China Space Youth Academy photo gallery, click here.

Forty highly energized Chinese high school students, racing a deadline, used bagfuls of everyday materials from the dollar store to build models of the first human outpost on Mars.

The students, who came from all over China, were competing in the final round of the China Youth Space Academy, an academic challenge joint partnership with Arizona State University, the Chinese government-run Web site,, and Beijing's Flying Spirit advertising agency.

The China Youth Space Academy aims to excite high school students about space science and engineering – a major focus for ASU – and to create a communication channel for students from the United States and China to understand and respect each other’s culture.

The 15 students who scored highest among the 40 finalists will travel to ASU at the end of January. They will join a group of high school students from Nogales, Ariz., for a 10-day hands-on space exploration experience. Together, the American and Chinese students will work on space exploration projects at ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Looking for top science talent

During the two-day national competition, held Nov. 17 and 18, in Beijing, student competitors were interviewed, in English, about their interests, capabilities and long-term goals. The students also competed in a Jeopardy-style question-and-answer contest with tough questions drawn from a variety of subject areas.

Then came a "talent show" – an opportunity for each student to demonstrate proficiency in some area. Students chose fields ranging from singing, folk dance and musical instruments (both Western and classical Chinese) to artistic paper cutting and calligraphy.

The toughest part of the competition, however, was designing a viable outpost that could support a six-person crew on Mars for 15 months with no supplies from Earth.

Students, who were divided into eight teams of five members each, were armed with a list of scientific data about the harsh Martian environment and basic human survival necessities, such as daily quantities of food, water, air and power. The teams had to decide where their outpost would be located, what its scientific purpose would be, and what skills the crew would have. Then they had to design an outpost habitat and build a model of it using ordinary materials such as paper cups, Styrofoam balls, CDs and plastic tubing.

The deadline was 8 a.m. on the second day, when each team had 10 minutes to describe their model's details as the judges looked on and assessed how carefully thought-out each plan was. Questions from the judges probed the students' reasons for choosing various aspects of their design.

Among the judges were ASU faculty and staff, and others from prestigious Chinese institutions, including Tsinghua University and the Beijing Planetarium. The entire two days of the final competition was videotaped by China Central Television and is being edited into a show to be broadcast throughout China.

Showcasing ASU strengths

Co-sponsoring the competition was a natural step for Arizona State University, says R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr., ASU’s vice president of research and economic affairs and one of the judges. "Other universities talk about their connections to China," he says. "We're actually there."

“In fact,” he adds, "we are so much involved that we have this television show promoting ASU's science and engineering research across all of China."

Shangraw led the ASU delegation that served on the final competition panel of judges. Joining Shangraw was Jennie Si, professor of electrical engineering in ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. Other ASU judges included Philip Christensen, Regents' Professor of geological sciences and director of ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility, and Sheri Klug, director of the ASU Mars Education Program.

"ASU is the first educational institution outside of China to co-host such a large-scale Chinese national event," says Si, who also is director of ASU's China initiatives and special projects in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs.

ASU was involved from the beginning. The 40 finalists were selected from more than 12,000 students who registered to take an online test in the first round. Staff at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration developed the online test, which evaluated students' knowledge of the solar system and space exploration. Similarly, the Mars outpost project was chosen to reflect the combined science and engineering focus of the school, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

The China Youth Space Academy has an important part in helping to advance one of the university's strategic goals.

"For ASU to be involved in this competition gives us access to China's top high school students," says Si.

Looking ahead, she says, "This was a highly successful event for all three partners. Everybody's looking forward to continuing and creating an even bigger success next year."

Robert Burnham
(480) 458-8207