Building Athens Part 1: Challenges to Building a Martian Education System

Welcome to Part 1 of Building Athens, the first in a series of articles on the development of the very first Martian education system.

Not only is obedience to law or criminal inclinations not inherited, but heredity also does not guarantee the transmission of genius or certain unique abilities inherent in parents, children may simply not have them.

From the Hive City entry in the Mars City States: New Societies For A New World

At the 2021 Mars Society convention over 20 teams competed in the “Mars City State Design Competition” for the $10,000 grand prize.1 Throughout the competition, great minds came together to brainstorm what a city state on Mars should look like. They considered things like culture, habitat design, aesthetics and the economy. As an educator, I was most interested in the culture portions of each team’s design, as it would have the most impact on education and what I cared most about. Moreover, the importance of education on Mars can’t be overstated. While the first generation of Martians will be hand-picked based on their unique talents and gifts, the second generation of Martians will not be chosen; they must be educated in order to make the continuation of the colony possible. While watching the presentations, I found that very little time was spent on education. The teams instead made the understandable choice to use their limited time to present their visions for government structures.

I decided instead to see if education featured in the written proposals2 from the City State Design Contest. To varying degrees I found that most teams had considered education in their proposals. Some teams had dedicated an entire section of their report to education – meticulously citing scholarly material in order to create a carefully crafted educational system including AI mentors and lessons tailored to learning styles.3 Other teams opted to import their educational model from Earth and repurpose the curriculum for Mars.4 Still others used the educational system as a pipeline to generate a useful workforce.5 After reading the proposals, I came away with the impression that there were many fantastic ideas, however many more iterations over the educational system would be needed before a coherent and holistic model for Martian education emerged.

The purpose of this article series is to provide the first of many iterations of thinking over the already fantastic ideas provided by the City State Design teams. Throughout the series, the city state ideas will be combined, critiqued, redacted, adjusted, added-to or scrapped altogether as we go on a journey trying to develop an educational system worthy of an interplanetary species. 

Children reading


Before setting out to provide a solution, the challenges of building an educational system need to be laid out. Expect no solutions to these challenges in this article – we’ll leave those for later in the series. Below I’ll go through what I see as some of the major challenges to building a comprehensive Martian educational model. I’ve divided them into two types. The first type is educational challenges having to do with the teaching and assessment of student learning. The second type of challenge I am creatively labelling ‘other’. These are political, economic, social or logistical challenges. It may be tempting for an educator such as myself to optimize for only the educational considerations, while an economist or a politician may take only the economic or political considerations into account. Clearly labelling the types of challenges will help mitigate the urge to craft an education system in our own image.

Educational Challenges

The first major educational challenge is that of prior knowledge. Before a child steps foot inside a classroom, they have already built up a knowledge base of common vocabulary, social customs and symbols. For example, they know that a car transports us between two locations, they know how to refer to their parents, grandparents and family, and they probably even know that a stop sign means “stop!” In other words, learning takes place, often informally, everywhere. In the same way that a parent may teach their 3-year-old about road safety here on Earth well before a Martian-born child even knows what a road is, a Martian-born child may learn about the importance of oxygen before an Earth-born child formally learns about oxygen in school. The result will be a vastly different set of general knowledge held by Martian-born children than what we expect from children here on Earth. 

Why is this important? As we’ll go over in more detail in the next article, prior knowledge is the foundation on which new knowledge is hooked. Teachers from Earth can not simply go to Mars and educate an entire generation of children to ‘build a city on Mars’ when that generation has never walked the streets of Toronto, London, New York or LA. The word ‘city’ will not mean the same thing to Martian-born children as it does to Earth-born children – perhaps it won’t mean anything at all. Some other notable differences in prior knowledge may be ‘farm’, ‘water’, ‘summer’, ‘animal’, ‘outside’ and ‘global warming’. Creating a shared vision for Mars between Earth-born and Martian-born people, both with different sets of prior knowledge, will be a major requirement for an effective education system on Mars. 

A second major challenge, separate but linked to the first, will be relevant curriculum design. Although it offers the necessities of life, Mars is fantastically different from Earth, and it will be a major challenge for educators (especially Earth-born ones) to fully understand the needs of a Martian curriculum. Although curriculum design here on Earth is unique to each nation, international diversity pales in comparison to the challenge of interplanetary diversity. Like the education system here on Earth, the curriculum on Mars will need to be tailored to the unique needs of the Mars’ colony – but what will these needs be? Will children on Mars need to learn about plate tectonics when none exist on Mars? Will they need to be introduced to specialized subjects like chemistry and physics earlier in their education career? What pieces of Earth’s history will be deemed important enough to make it into the Mars curriculum? Interplanetary curriculum design offers an exciting educational challenge on a scale never faced by humans before. 

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Third, the hostile environment on Mars raises the stakes for successful behaviour management. Misbehaviour on Earth usually results in consequences ranging from annoying, to mildly inconvenient, to very inconvenient. Very rarely does it end fatally. In the very fragile environment of a burgeoning Mars colony, misbehaviour could be fatal more often and on a larger scale than here on Earth. A colleague of mine at the Mars Society of Canada imagined a parent standing over a child in a spacesuit saying “What did I tell you about leaving the airlock open?” In short, behaviour management will be an even more difficult nut to crack on Mars as it is on Earth, with even greater consequences if we get it wrong than what we experience here on Earth. 

Finally, Mars challenges the traditional Earthly format(s) in which a curriculum is delivered. This will be especially true in the early days of the colony, when it will make little sense to build a physical university for fifty colonists, each studying different topics. It is unlikely that there will be a massive cohort of students of the same age ready to learn with the help of a classroom teacher. Therefore, Mars challenges us to question some of the fundamental assumptions about our traditional public education systems here on Earth. How will students be grouped? Should they work with a teacher in person or work online? Should students receive letter grades or should they be assessed differently? Should they even be assessed? Designing a flexible and effective format for education delivery will be a major challenge in a colony of rapidly changing size and demographic. 

Children learning

Other Challenges

The educational blank slate of Mars challenges all these views. An effective educational model will have a clear answer to the question: What is the purpose of education on Mars?

In addition to purely educational considerations, there are a smattering of additional political, social, economic and logistical challenges to building an effective educational system on Mars. 

First, the challenge of creating an educational system from scratch forces us to re-evaluate the entire purpose of education. In other words, the Martian educational system will need a mission statement – and it may be different to the mission statements of educational institutions here on Earth. Here on Earth, many ideas about the purpose of education are permitted to exist simultaneously. A teenager out of high school may view their future engineering degree as a form of vocational training. Another student may choose a degree in history or philosophy in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Another still may study an ancient language so that they may better understand the roots of their own religion. The educational blank slate of Mars challenges all these views. An effective educational model will have a clear answer to the question: What is the purpose of education on Mars?

In addition to debating the ‘official’ purposes of education, education here on Earth has a number of ‘unofficial’ purposes that are equally important to debate before designing a system for Mars. For example, schools here on Earth allow one person (the teacher) to care for roughly thirty children (depending on country and format). This allows parents to engage in economically useful activity during the day instead of engaging in child care. Although this is an ‘unofficial’ purpose, you need only ask a parent what the impact of school closures during the COVID pandemic had on them to see how important this role is. Another unofficial purpose is to instill a common set of values in the population so that we can all work and play together. Just as is the case here on Earth, the education system on Mars will need to play a number of ‘unofficial’ roles to support the broader culture and economy of the colony. 

Second, the educational system on Mars will suffer the same labour shortages that the entire colony will face in its initial stages. Meticulously allocating staff to manage all aspects of the education system (administration, teaching and learning, operational, financial) will be a key component in ensuring the effectiveness of the educational system. It is unlikely that the inefficient, administrator-heavy systems of Earth’s schools and universities will be possible in such a labour-scarce market like Mars. Instead, creative solutions will be needed in order to maximise the impact of the educational staff who do make the journey to the Red Planet.  

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Third, a serious challenge will be to ensure the educational system on Mars is not used for the purposes of malicious actors. After all, the distinction between propaganda and education is not always clear. For example, only since 2019 has Ontario required teaching students about the residential schools in Canada as a part of the official curriculum. Before this change, students learned from a history curriculum that glossed over this ugly aspect of Canada’s past. What is more likely on Mars than a nation manipulating its history via education, is a corporation or political party pushing their agenda through education. Whatever purpose we decide the education system should play on Mars, we must ensure it is resistant to the corruption of malicious actors who may want to gain a monopoly over the minds of early Martians. 

Finally, and perhaps the largest challenge of all, will be the rapidly changing size and demographics of the colony. The changing demographics of the colony means that any solutions to the previous challenges mentioned above will not be permanent. The purpose of the education system, while the colony has a population of 100, will be very different from a colony with a population of 100,000. Differences in prior knowledge may only be an issue when there is a significant proportion of both Earth-born and Martian-born students in the system – but not when most students are either mostly Earth-born or mostly Martian-born. Maintaining flexibility and change over time will be a major component of a successful Martian education system. 

A New Athens for Mars

You may be wondering why the name of this article series is ‘Building Athens’. In ancient times, Pericles referred to Athens as the ‘school of Greece.’ Athens was a center of learning for the great philosophers Socrates, Plato and the polymath Aristotle, the playwrights Sophocles and Aristophanes, and the historians Herodotus and Xenophon. Most importantly, it was the birthplace of a flourishing civilization whose influence can be felt down the ages. We must build a Martian Athens that is equally grand. Unlike Ancient Athens, the Martian Athens will not be a single location; but it will be a center of learning. It will consist of the full range of social, political, economic and logistical mechanisms that make the educational system on Mars work: the staff and students, the curriculum, the administration and the delivery format. 

Will this new Athens succumb to the challenges outlined above? Or will we build something truly worthy of an interplanetary species; a system that results in the flourishing of a new civilization? What type of Athens can we create? In future articles, I will aim to tackle each challenge posed above, building a new Martian Athens brick by brick. 

Footnotes and Further Reading

1 Presentations from the top 5 groups can be found on The Mars Society’s Youtube channel in the playlist 22nd Annual Mars Society Convention – including the winning team’s, Nexus Aurora.

2 The written proposals for each group have been collected into a published book by The Mars Society called Mars City States: New Societies For A New World edited by Frank Crossman. This book is available for purchase on Amazon.

3 See the Hive City entry in the Mars City States proposals, which cites the pedagogy of Viktor Shatalov specifically. The Mars City State of Tharsis entry speaks of personal AI mentors.

4 See the Mars City State entry by Stephen Zlatarev on using a virtual platform relying on a connection to Earth.

5 See the Mareekh entry on students performing farming and maintenance duties for the settlement and the Korolev Crater Special Administrative Region entry on education preventing key skill shortages.

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