Destination Mars: Launching the VMS Pilot Program

School News
October 1, 2018 There is something innovative being cultivated in the basement of Vail Mountain School. It’s a new program for middle school students that brings problem solving and experiential education to a higher level; a model of learning that lets students explore challenging problems through their own skills and interests, putting the power of knowledge directly into their hands.

It’s called the “Pilot Program.” It’s new this year, and it’s being designed, developed and fine tuned by VMS Middle School Director Kabe ErkenBrack and John Jessup, the Pilot Program Lead Teacher. Together they are taking a problem-based learning pedagogy inspired by others already in action and perfecting it for VMS, at VMS.

“It really started with this idea that we should be teaching kids wisdom and not knowledge,” explained ErkenBrack. “I wanted to create a situation where kids could engage in the questions we’ve always been interested in, but never had a way to talk about in schools.”

Initially the Pilot Program was defined as a space where students could choose any interest and have the time and support to pursue it. However, anticipating that “decision paralysis” might make it too hard for students to choose any one topic out of an infinite pool of options, that concept evolved.

The Path to Mars in an “Arc”

Not wanting to confine the potential creative power behind this project, ErkenBrack and Jessup adopted the idea of using “an arc” – a general theme that students can work within to solve problems according to their own interests and skill sets. It’s a concept inspired by a visit to BrightWorks in San Francisco that was among the significant professional development undertaken by Jessup and ErkenBrack in preparation for the launch of this program.

“The goal of the theme isn't to restrict choice, but, perhaps contrary to expectations, help the students focus so they can cut-through the decision making and learn more about their given interest or passion.”

“We let them decide what their specialty is,” said Jessup. “The students pick an angle to approach the quarter’s arc that they think best fits their interests and abilities. They think about their skills, think about their passions, and then consider how they can fit that in with the arc.”

And this quarter, the twelve middle schoolers who are pioneering this progressive initiative have been given an arc of cosmic proportions.

They’re going to survive on Mars – together for 730 days.

Of course, it isn’t typical to find middle school students all working collaboratively on a problem as strange and complex as Martian survival. But, then, VMS is a place of exceptional exceptions, and when you descend into the subterranean sanctuary that is home to the Pilot Program, that’s exactly what you’ll find: students, scattered here and there, focused and quietly working on projects that range from engineering a Mars Expedition Research Vehicle that runs on nuclear and solar energy, to designing the habitat within which their community would survive and thrive in the Martian tundra.

Jessup was helping a student who was designing the interior of their extra-terrestrial habitat when I visited, surrounded by others who were hard at work, absorbed in research, and delving into topics as diverse as their interests.

Sammie Shim, a student with a passion for writing, was creating a chronicle of their adventure on Mars told through journal entries for each and every student in the group. It’s a project which required her to interview all eleven of her peers so she could write in their individual voices. To help her with planning and continuity, she used a nearby wall, masking tape and Post-it Notes to lay it all out as a 25 foot timeline.

The group’s “resident animal lovers”, Lily Thomas and Sage Evans, were working on the logistics and ethics of bringing animals to Mars. Lily was in the process of designing a habitat for chickens and dogs they intended to bring with on the trip. Among the questions she’s grappling with was what to do with the waste? What could not be used for fertilizer, would be stored and brought back to earth, similar to backcountry “leave no trace” ethics she’s learned through VMS outdoor ed programs.

Sage was getting ready to design a spacesuit for dogs. “Sage reached out to a professor of aerospace engineering at CU Boulder who actually has experience designing space suits,” said Jessup.

“He gave me a whole bunch of information about what you need in a space suit,” Sage added, excitedly. “And explained what I’d need to have in one designed for dogs.”

ErkenBrack added that this is a great example of focusing a passion. “Sage and Lily asked to bring their pets to school to see how the animals would react to a new and strange environment. They’re both interested in veterinary medicine, so we challenged them to take it to the next level and learn about the chemical reactions in the brain that result from stress. As a result, they now know what Cortisol is and how it affects behavior.”

And that’s a key to this program—helping the students generate driving questions that will be the departure point for real inquiry.

Directing Their Own Learning

Jessup explained that students start the arc at the beginning of the quarter with a “declaration”, or a project proposal, wherein they outline in-depth what questions they want to answer. Then, they launch into project documentation and research, logging progress and accomplishments on a daily basis all along the way.

“We want them to really dive into something and become an expert in it,” Jessup explained, as he showed me some of the student’s project folders; page after page of research information, sources cited, daily progress and questions.

Eddie Alrick asked, “What is the most efficient way to travel on Mars, in terms of both power and mode of transport? What will the rover be made of so it is light enough to be efficient?” Eddie’s passion is all things cars. Eddie is also a talented artist and has developed exceptionally detailed, scale drawings of MERV, the Mars Exploration and Research Vehicle, which is his contribution to the team’s effort.

Gracie Johnson wonders “How would you avoid boredom on Mars and how would you spend your time?” Her passion is dance; her interest is focused on the intersection of mental and physical health. She is designing a space for exercise within the “HAB” and also creating a mental health journal that the space travelers will use to record, monitor, reflect on, and ultimately, maintain their emotional balance. Gracie has also chosen to undertake an independent study in Dance with a local mentor. She travels to an off-site studio twice a week which is made possible by the flexibility of the Pilot Program schedule.

The group’s resident botanist, Charlie Thelen, is delving into how to create a sustainable food source on Mars and what foods will give us the nutrients and vitamins we will need to survive. Moreover, what plants can grow the longest without needing to be replanted or restarted from seed. Her passion lies in food and she loves to cook.

Upstairs in the library, Tiki Jaffe was making a model of a cryogenic tank which they would be using to store all of their atmospheric gasses for their habitat. “We’re storing them in a cryogenic tank so we can store them in liquid form, because it takes up 861 times less space,” Jaffe informed me. “We’re only storing oxygen and nitrogen, because the composition of Earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, so that is all we’d really need.”

Jaffe’s familiarity with this information was remarkably casual. Which gives you an idea for just how deeply these students are researching their projects. This is a far cry from a broad and general school assignment – this is a premeditated, personal venture in solving specific problems, creatively and effectively.

Students in the Pilot Program will still be exposed to their regular classes, as well, in addition the pilot cohort. They won’t be missing out on anything.

“All pilot students will have a ‘homebase’, their electives and their language classes in the regular classrooms,” said ErkenBrack. But during science, English, math and history courses, they will be working in the cohort.

By approaching a problem as complex and generally vague as “surviving on mars”, those core curriculum subjects are linked into and throughout the arc. And students have a variety of different entry points to approach them from – from communications, to hydrology, design, transportation, atmospherics, provisions, ethics, and writing.

“They are learning content like science, math, and English and they are building skills like communication, cooperation, creativity, patience,” said Jessup. Not only that, but there is a lot of teamwork and collaboration going on. Jessup described how many of the students have discovered that their projects are interwoven with other student’s, and therefore they can be most effective when they work together.

In October the Pilot Program students will present their final Mars projects – not just to their fellow pilot project students, not just to the administration of VMS, but also to parents. It will be a chance for them to demonstrate their problem-solving prowess, and the power behind this project-based learning program.

“It’s a public product,” said Jessup. Everyone will get to enjoy the fruits of these student’s hard work.

And that goes beyond the end-of-quarter presentations.

Reaching Beyond VMS

ErkenBrack explained how, on top of putting students in charge of their education and showing them how they can solve problems and answer interesting questions on their own, the Pilot Program will also act as a powerhouse, generating information for other teachers (at VMS and perhaps beyond) about project-based learning. And it could bring VMS to the forefront of this style of education.

“Essentially we’ve created a lab school within our school,” he said. “We really want to be a central location for project-based learning and plan to share everything that we’re doing with other teachers.” Sharing their findings with the teachers throughout the school—what is successful, what isn’t, and how they’ve improved their system along the way— is an integral part of the Pilot program. “This is an example of how the work of a small cohort of students and teachers can benefit the entire school as each division explores project-based learning,” says ErkenBrack. “There’s also many educators throughout the world looking for best practices in PBL, so there is real potential to benefit others well beyond our school, and become a thought leader in this area. I believe that what we’re doing in the pilot program is what’s ahead for education in the future and I think this is part of what schools need to move toward."

What’s Next?

Next quarter, the students will get an entirely new arc. Something fresh. Something inspiring. Something that Jessup said would allow the students even greater freedom of choice.

“For this Mars arc, the purpose is somewhat narrow, because we want them to know what it’s like to get a project done that’s kind of prescribed,” said Jessup. “And then, increasingly, the purpose is going to become more vague, requiring more self-direction and allowing more freedom of choice.”

What that means remains to be seen – next quarter’s arc is still classified information. And Jessup’s lips are sealed.

The students are already excited, though. And so is ErkenBrack. “I’ve got some vision, I know where it’s going, but it’s also constantly in flux,” he said of the future of the VMS pilot program. “That’s what I really appreciate about John as a teacher. He has that ability to be really organized and flexible at the same time. And that’s unique.”

ErkenBrack and Jessup both have hopes to expand the pilot program over the coming years beyond the twelve-student sample group they’re working with now. It’s never going to replace all of the aspects of traditional education at VMS, and it shouldn’t anywhere, both teachers agreed.

However, the skills these students are developing in the VMS Pilot Program are an important piece of the education puzzle.

“This is not a replacement for what we are already doing, because we are doing good work and we know it works,” ErkenBrack clarified. “But it’s a needed addition to what we offer and an important part of making education relevant to the kids and thus, most meaningful.”

So, bigger, better, more effective – that’s what the future of VMS’ Pilot Program looks like right now. Which is good news for all parties; for students seeking to sharpen their problem-solving skills, for teachers looking to improve upon the productiveness of their curricula, and for parents who want their children to get the most valuable education experience possible.

To learn more about the VMS Pilot Program, please contact VMS Middle School Director, Kabe ErkenBrack, at

This story was contributed to VMS News by freelance writer, Will Brendza, working in collaboration with the Vail Mountain School Advancement Office.