For most students, the word “explorer” conjures images of long-dead figures such as Christopher Columbus or Magellan. But the administrator for pre-college educational programs at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out that the emerging field of space exploration has literally infinite horizons.
What is your role at JPL?
One of NASA’s responsibilities to the taxpayers is to communicate information about what it is that we learn in space exploration and aeronautics. One way we can do that effectively is by preparing materials for students and teachers. We produce all kinds of materials – for example, videotapes, educator guides, fact sheets, lithographs, Web sites, and CD-ROM’s.
As a former classroom teacher, one of my jobs is to make sure that JPL produces materials that make the teacher’s job a little bit easier. When a teacher looks at NASA material or JPL material, we want them to say, “This is something I know is of high quality, and has accurate factual information.”
But even more importantly, our materials must align to science, mathematics or technology education standards . This makes it possible for teachers to incorporate them into their lesson plans in a way that contributes to the success of their students.
Can you tell me about Mars missions at JPL?
JPL has one mission in the preparation stage, preparing for launch in April of 2001. Right now, the spacecraft is called “The Mars 2001 Orbiter”; it might get a better name as we get a little closer to launch. It will go into orbit around Mars carrying scientific instruments to better characterize what Mars is actually made of.
In 2003 we’re going to be launching another spacecraft. It will be either another orbiter or a rover that will travel some distance across the surface like a robotic geologist.
Down the road, we want to send some missions that will collect samples and bring them back to Earth so that we can do a detailed laboratory analysis. We want to pick up rocks and soil and also bring back air samples. We need to keep them pristine, keep them from being contaminated by space or by the terrestrial environment.
With the information we gather, we can answer some of our questions about water on Mars, and possibly life on Mars.
These missions are in addition to the host of Mars Missions that JPL has already launched – from Mariner 4 to Mars Pathfinder.
What was the response to the Pathfinder mission?
I think there’s some sort of phenomenon that occurs periodically in space exploration. They don’t happen all that often – but when they do, they are pretty spectacular. What happened for Pathfinder was almost on par with the first Apollo moon landing.
Part of this was the Internet. Lots and lots of people were able to follow the mission not only on television but also online. When we brought pictures back, they could download them onto their own computers. A huge number of people were able to share in the activity and see what the scientists were seeing at the same time!
Here was the Sojourner rover, about the size of a laser printer. You could watch it move across the surface from day to day and see it change its position and analyze the environment. Everything came together and captured everybody’s imagination and enthusiasm.
Another thing that happened is that you got a good look at the people that were actually doing the work. And for the most part, they were on the young side. They weren’t wearing coats and ties. They were visibly excited about what they where doing.
When young people see something like that, it says to them, “This is a lot of fun, maybe I can do this.” Then maybe they study a little bit harder, with the objective of becoming a scientist or engineer and actually personally participating in the exploration of another planet.
What are some of the educational activities that are going on related to the Mars missions?
Several kinds of activities are happening. In the case of Mars Global surveyor, the thermal emission spectrometer, or TES instrument, is operated out of Arizona State University. They have got a wonderful education and outreach program.
JPL hosts a Mars Web site.* There’s an education link there that has activities on the canyons of Mars, water on Mars and things like that. There are online images and fact sheets that teachers can interpret for their students, or that the students can read directly.
There’s a pretty neat joint project between NASA, The US Department of Education, The National Endowment For The Arts, and The J.Paul Getty Trust called “The Mars Millennium Project.” The objective of the project is for students to imagine that there are 100 people living on Mars, in the year 2030. They are living much like people live on Antarctica today -they stay there, they are isolated, they can’t simply come running back home for whatever they might need or forget.
The project is meant to ask questions like, “What does it take to survive?” and, “What makes a community?” – in ways that can be answered not only by science students, but also by social studies students or students in the fine arts and humanities.
Not only do you have to worry about what are you going to breathe, and where are you going to get your water, you also have to think about how are people going to interact with each other. What form of government do you have? What kinds of things – assuming that they are small – do you bring from home to remind you about who you are culturally, spiritually, emotionally? And what do you do for fun?
Resources for this project are available on the Internet.**
How can teachers get their students excited about careers in space exploration?
Well, little kids start being excited about space anyway – so it’s not difficult to excite people about space. The trick is to keep them engaged.
Teachers want to teach exciting topics like space, because it helps them engage their students. But we have to make sure that we give them materials that are relevant to what they want to do and not just simply enrichment. Education today is driven strongly towards standards and performance testing. In the state of California in particular, we’ve got teachers that know very well that they are going to be evaluated personally or that their school is going to be evaluated based on test scores.
So we have to be intelligent about the pressures the teachers are under and give them materials that are not supplementary, but go to the heart of what their students need to know and the skills that their students need to have.
What kinds of learning opportunities do you see through the Internet?
The Internet has made it possible for two things to happen. The first part is that NASA can now make far more information available to the public than it ever could before. For example, in the old days you might have been able to get a set of four pictures from JPL. Today, we produce very little printed material – but there are literally hundreds of images available online, with captions.
The other thing is the research capability. In a library you go to the card catalog, or maybe you can do a keyword search on the computer and find some books of interest. But on the Internet, any student that can conduct even the most basic keyword search can find tons and tons of information from which to do reports or to read for their own satisfaction.
Now whenever there is a news event, the first place you go isn’t the TV – you jump onto the Internet. That’s true for all sorts of news, including information about the space program.
What’s the best way for teachers to connect to your resources?
Most teachers probably already are using some NASA materials, if only the images of planets that are in textbooks and teaching materials.
The best thing to do is to invest a little time in learning about what materials are actually available. A good place to start is the NASA education page.***
After they find something they like, it’s good to invest a little more time in understanding how it really fits in to what they are going to teach. If they can find a good match, then the material can become a staple for them in their classroom year after year. And they can update it as we get new information and new findings.
The other place they can visit is the NASA Spacelink, which has information for both teachers and students.
There’s also the Educator Resource Center Network, which includes about seventy sites located around the country that include people that are knowledgeable about NASA programs and NASA educational materials.
There are ten NASA field centers located around the country. Teachers can call these and ask for the education office.
What would you want students to discover from these resources?
When students are asked about explorers, they generally come up with the idea that exploration was done by guys with names like Magellan, who all died a long time ago. That’s not the case at all. We are visiting new places; we’re seeing places in completely new ways.
We are exploring the solar system, including Earth, we’re exploring space, we’re exploring galaxies and stars, including our own star.
Any chance that students have to look behind the curtain and see what the people in this field are doing is a chance for them to imagine themselves in those same kinds of jobs.
Many of the people at JPL feel that we are the explorers of now the 21st century. And that’s a special thing to be.
Thanks very much.
Email for Mars-related materials: marsoutreachsender.jpl.nasa.gov
*JPL Mars Exploration Program
**Mars Millennium Project
***NASA Education Program