MESA, Ariz. -- More than 800 students from 34 schools around Arizona are facing off in a science competition at Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus that will give the winning team a very special opportunity at NASA.
The students, between fifth- and eighth-graders, have been given a tall order: To come up with a way to live on the moon, said event chair Nate Dominguez.
"They have a job to come up with what they envision a lunar base would look like," he said. "The project behind the base is to mine Helium-3 out of the moon, which could be an alternative energy source."
Each group has to build models, presentation boards and mission patches, just like the ones NASA uses for each of its space missions and will be judged based on several different criterion.
"They're not only judging the physical displays, but they also ask for a seven-minute presentation," he said.
The judges of the competition are engineers from Honeywell, who have taken time off work to view the student's ideas and presentations, Dominguez said.
The competition runs for three days and began Monday, with two winning teams selected by the judges from each day.
Dominguez said the six teams left will compete against one another at the Arizona Science Center in a final round, with the final team left standing receiving a very unique prize for their efforts.
"The winner of those six teams...not only gets an on-field presentation at halftime during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, but they also get an all-expense paid trip by the Fiesta Bowl Committee to go to NASA in Houston," Dominguez said.
That trip includes not only the students, but also their coach and parents will all get a behind-the-scenes look at NASA and the opportunity to talk with astronauts.
Even for those students who won't get the opportunity to be on the field at the Fiesta Bowl and visit Houston, Carolyn Starr, K-12 outreach coordinator at ASU's Polytechnic Campus, said the event is important to help cultivate more interest in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics in young students.
"We are the college of technology and innovation," she said. "For these students in this Mesa area, we are about bringing these students here and seeing that they can make, they can innovate and they can design."
For Keith Hughes, a retired engineer who has designed components for the International Space Station and is one of the contest judges, he said the real lesson is about learning to work in teams.
"The students are given a big problem, it's like eating an elephant one bite at a time," he said. "The only way they can get through it in the time available is to divide and conquer, each one specialize on something... that's kind of how we work in the real world."
This is the contest's 15th year. The final six teams from this week's competition will compete in the final on Feb. 22.