Design students create immersive exhibit made to inspire

It seems like Mars is all the rage. From Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy (which maybe isn't going to orbit the Red Planet after all) to the Netflix documentary “The Mars Generation,” there's a teeming undercurrent of interest in Earth's closest planetary neighbor. Into this boom of interest in space travel steps the junior Industrial Design class at CCAD.

“CCAD on Mars” is the culmination of a yearlong academic project for students, who were challenged to investigate notions around going to and living on Mars. The result is an immersive exhibit that explores both the history and potential future of space travel.

“The way we've set up the class … we decided to present it as a real agency, to simulate a real-world environment,” said Assistant Professor of Industrial Design John Youger in an on-campus interview. The project-based course tasked a student team to design and create a prototype that could be presented to a client.

“We like it to be topical,” Youger said. “We want the students to graduate with a portfolio that shows work they've done over the last four years that is very relevant, and we want to give them skills that they're going to be communicating to a variety of different potential audiences.”

After an initial period of assessment, research and deliberation, the team decided to focus on an inspirational exhibit that would encourage interest in exploring the possibilities of future travel to Mars. Among the team's early consultants were representatives from COSI and Nathan Carter, who worked on the Netflix Mars documentary.

“One of the big challenges is that [there are] so many aspects to the topic. There's the science of the planet itself, which is fascinating and currently under investigation. And there are engineering and technical questions we pose to ourselves, thinking about how we go to Mars and, thinking really far out, [about] living there,” COSI Chief Scientist Paul Sutter said. “So I urged [the students] to focus on one thing, to find some story, find some experience that [they] can use to communicate a message.”

“Paul said we don't really lack the means to go to Mars, but maybe we are lacking in motivation,” Youger said. “We decided to really focus on that inspiration piece. We began to see the project as more experiential and less as a particular product pitch.”

“Once we had that focus, we could really get into the research and begin to ask what it would look like,” said CCAD junior Industrial Design major Mariah Zambuto, who served as the project manager for “CCAD on Mars.”

The exhibition is designed to be similar to the kind of experience one might have at COSI. The immersive experience will begin with a look back at life on Earth in the 1960s and early space exploration, using video and virtual reality. A trip through a physical representation of the manned portion of a rocket will transition visitors into an area imagining life on Mars. A kid-sized Mars rover (a great photo op) and another virtual-reality experience will hopefully plant some seeds in young minds about the prospects of traveling to Mars.

“We wanted to create a really cool experience that would inspire younger generations to want to go to Mars,” Zambuto said. “We decided to go that route because we thought that they could be the ones to make it happen.”

“It was an exciting opportunity to take something these students are passionate about — design — and apply it to something they probably knew a lot less about,” Sutter said.

“This project might not be as strictly focused on the manufacturing part as some of our design work, but it takes into account all those same principles and practices,” Youger said.

“CCAD on Mars” continues through Sunday, Feb. 25. A “Breakfast on Mars” reception will be held Saturday, Feb. 17. It's free and open to the public.