On Monday, the University of Virginia’s Observatory Mountain Engineering Research Facility became the mission control center for a fleet of “Mars rovers.”
BLAST (Building Leaders in Science and Technology) is a free, three-day residential program at UVa for incoming high school freshmen and sophomores that encourages interest in STEM careers. BLAST hosted 80 students this week, with equal numbers of boys and girls.
On Monday, students were given several hours to design and build a remotely-operated model rover from Lego Mindstorms kits. The activity was designed to give students a sense of what it’s like to guide a robot across the Red Planet from millions of miles away.
The students gathered around laptops and used their robots’ cameras and maps to complete tasks on a simulated Martian landscape that BLAST instructors had set up behind an opaque curtain. The BLAST students received coaching from members of Team 619, a Charlottesville-Albemarle robotics team that competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition.
Students were assigned a specific role on their mission team, such as principal investigator, project scientist, project manager or operations manager. Students in each role were provided with information on documents that they were prohibited from sharing with their teammates.
“The whole team together has the full puzzle,” said Edward Murphy, an associate professor of Astronomy at UVa. “How well a team does often depends on how well they are able to communicate.”
Aidan Pew, a student from Chesapeake, said communication was not the most serious difficulty that his group faced.
“The hardest part was building the whole [robot] and making sure it wouldn’t break,” Pew said.
BLAST is a partnership between the UVa School of Engineering and Applied Science, the UVa College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium.
The Virginia Space Grant Consortium is a coalition of Virginia colleges, universities and educational agencies, two NASA centers, Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology and other institutions representing aerospace education and research.

Josh Mandell graduated from Yale in 2016 and has been recognized by the Virginia Press Association with five awards for education writing, health, science and environmental writing and multimedia reporting.