As our school-wide Mars Exploration project got underway at American Academy of Innovation, I wanted to give the team leaders an opportunity to share what they were doing with a larger audience and meet the people who are actually planning the human exploration of Mars. I wrote a proposal for a poster in the education division of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) held near Houston each March.
In 2004 I had the opportunity to attend the LPSC and present what we were doing in my classes on using the Mars MOLA 3D altitude data. This was at a pre-conference workshop on how to get NASA data into the hands of students. Since I was actually doing it, I was invited to come present. This was through contacts that I had at JPL; one of the organizing people for the workshop was Art Hammon whom I had worked with in the NASA Explorer Schools program; I had the workshop participants use MOLA data so Art knew of my expertise. I attended the reception at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, which houses the Lunar Receiving Lab where all the moon rock samples are kept (the first meeting was held there in 1969), and I attended sessions the following day such as the initial report on the results of the Stardust mission flyby of comet Wild-2. This session was fun because they handed out 3D red-blue glasses and all the scientists were wearing them, so I took a quick shot of the audience – the absolute essence of science nerds wearing 3D glasses. I only had the one day to attend the conference, as I needed to spend the next day working with Ota Lutz to plan our JPL workshop. Ota was also kind enough to take me on a VIP tour of Johnson Space Center, including the neutral buoyancy pool and the old Apollo control room.
From that experience, I knew that it was possible for a high school teacher to attend and even present at the conference. So why not high school students? In my proposal, I described the project-based learning (PBL) ideas we were incorporating into our Mars project. In a few weeks, I heard back that the poster was accepted. The next steps were to figure out how to get students there and to make the actual poster.
Fundraising turned out to be problematic. The student leaders were willing to go out and knock on doors, but certain people in the school wanted to make sure we did the fundraising correctly so as to build bridges to organizations for continuing support, not just loosing students on the community. I can understand the need for proper public relations and doing things the right way, but I had an immediate need and it felt like my hands were being tied. I was used to having more freedom on how I ran projects. In the end, we did not raise any money from the community because we spent too much time discussing how we should raise money instead of actually raising it. I tried contacting sponsors myself such as Orbital ATK, but we were a new school in our first year of operation and hadn’t established a track record of success that would attract sponsors or grants.
In the meantime I created a poster explaining the characteristics of gold-standard PBL (see the Buck Institute for Education’s website for more on this at: http://www.bie.org ). I added photos from my Mars video group and described the 13 projects, our progress, and what we had learned about PBL so far. I laid it all out in a large format Powerpoint slide, then had it printed and laminated at Kinko’s.
In the end, two students and one parent were able to use their own money to come to Houston with me. I had to completely self-finance my trip as well. By this time, the school was having financial difficulty and could not provide any help for our trip, even if it meant great PR for the school.
I arranged for the tickets, hotel, conference registration (we got a discount on this), and rental car just a few days before the conference and got the students prepared. Jason was the leader of the Mars Habitat group, and Noah was the leader of the Moustronaut group. Mike, Jason’s father, also agreed to come with us. We met at the Salt Lake airport on the opening Monday of the conference (we didn’t want to fly on Sunday and could only afford two nights in the hotel). I hand carried the poster onto the airplane in a large bag. We had a layover in Phoenix, and saw a group of university students with a poster laid out and found they were on their way to Houston as well, so we had a nice discussion waiting to board.
After landing at Bush International Airport we found our shuttle to the car rental area, got our SUV rental, and drove north to the La Quinta near the airport to drop off our bags and check into our rooms. We had to post our poster so that people could read it before the first evening poster session on Tuesday, so we drove north of Houston to the Woodland Hills Convention Center. We had some trouble finding it as we went to the wrong conference center. The Google Maps app that Mike had on his phone confused the two and I had left the address back at the hotel. We finally found it, parked at the mall lot across the street, and went in to the registration desk where we picked up our badges. We took the long escalator downstairs to the main floor and found the area for our poster, clear in the back of the hall in the education section. The dividers were already numbered, so it was easy to find our spot and pin up our poster. Looking at the program online before we came down I was excited to find out that several of the posters next to ours would be by people I knew: Christine Shupla, Sheri Klug-Boonstra, Paige Valderama and others. There would be at least one other high school with a poster.
We took some photos and wandered around for a while looking at the other posters and booths. Almost nobody was there because they were all in Monday’s sessions, and it was too late in the day for us to go to any. We would be doing this on Tuesday and maybe Wednesday. Our first order of business was to attend the NASA Town Hall Meeting in the main conference area, which started at 5:00. We walked in early and found some seats up front.
It was about a half hour before the meeting started, which would be led by Jim Green, head of Planetary Sciences for NASA (and as of this writing now the Chief Scientist for NASA). He was up at the front getting things ready and I pointed him out to Jason and Noah. Noah asked if we could meet him, and I said he was probably too busy getting the meeting ready, but Noah persisted – he just wanted to shake hands and have a quick photo opp. I remembered how kind John Grunsfeld had been to the NITARP students at the AAS meeting back in 2015, and how Paul Hertz had spoken to me, a lowly high school teacher, as if I were an equal. So I thought “What the heck!” and gave in. We boldly walked up to the front and I introduced myself and my students to Jim Green. He was not only excited to meet some high school students at the conference, but took five minutes to talk with us about the amazing opportunities there were in planetary science as a career. And we did get our photo opp!
As I have said before in this blog, almost all the NASA personnel that I have met in my travels are delighted to talk about their work, as they are excited to do what they do and want to share. They all recognize that NASA depends on getting the next generation excited about space exploration, and will jump at the opportunity to discuss aerospace careers with students. This was the main reason why I wanted to bring students along, so that they could meet real scientists on the cutting edge of discovery and hear the excitement in their voices as they push the boundaries of knowledge. We had been at the conference for less than an hour and our expedition was already paying off. I hope they never forget this moment. I know I never will.
The town meeting was interesting. I have attended several of these now, between the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conferences in 2014 and 2015 and my previous visit to Houston in 2004. At AAS, Paul Hertz discusses upcoming astrophysics missions and research opportunities. At this session, Jim Green and a panel of people discussed upcoming planetary science missions and the decadal survey. In the new Trump presidency, NASA’s budget has been rearranged in unexpected ways. Overall funds were a bit higher, but funds for Earth Science missions had been drastically cut to the dismay of many in the audience. The feeling in the room was that since Pres. Trump doesn’t believe in climate change that these missions that might prove him wrong were being deliberately axed. Of course, the President’s budget has to be approved and can be modified by Congress, but as a federal agency, NASA has to support the White House’s directives.
There are also changes regarding the direction of exploration. Instead of using the Orion and Space Launch System to travel to a small asteroid to bring back samples, Trump wants to take us back to the Moon as a practice for going on to Mars. One of the proposals is to build an inflatable habitat in cis-lunar space in order to practice living in a Mars habitat (Jason got excited about that, since he had become an expert on space habitats from our animation project that he narrated). This moon-orbiting habitat could then be a platform from which we can return to the lunar surface as a practice for landing on Mars.
The scientist over this project, Dr. Ben Bussey, was one of the panelists and described what NASA is thinking and how it would work. Noah and Jason wanted to meet him, too, so after the meeting was over we went up and Dr. Bussey talked with us for about 15 minutes. He was excited to hear what we were doing with our Mars project and the Mars habitat animation.
It had already been a great first day. This trip might be costing me my own money, but this is the kind of thing I became a teacher for. I consider myself fortunate to have met some of the best scientists in the world and to be a witness to humanity’s greatest adventure, the exploration of the universe.
We were starving and stopped at a Sonic drive-in on the way back to our hotel.