An Exemplary Teacher
I have been blessed by learning from some of the best teachers in Utah, both as a student and as a colleague. The best teacher of all was J. Fay Jacobsen, a science and math teacher at Delta High School. I had 8th grade math, chemistry, AP chemistry, and physics from Mr. Jacobsen, and his classes were memorable.
He not only taught me chemistry and physics, but he was a mentor and supported me in my first tentative steps at becoming a scientist. He encouraged me to apply for a National Science Foundation sponsored Summer Science Training Program in chemistry for high school students held at the University of Utah during the summer of 1977. It changed my life.
He supported my research and experimentation for a science fair project on methanol-air fuel cells, and personally took a day off of teaching to drive me to Cedar City, Utah for the regional science fair, where I took first place in the physical sciences division. When I traveled to the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) held in Anaheim, CA in May, he volunteered to take a week off and come with us as a chaperone.
His personal sacrifices for me as an individual inspired me to become a science teacher myself, and I can only aspire to be a fraction of the teacher he was. I have made it a point to support my own students in their science research efforts, and I have traveled with them to present at professional science conferences hoping they will have a similar positive experience to the one Mr. Jacobsen gave to me.
So when I found that we would be exploring Mars for our first school-wide project at American Academy of Innovation and saw the quality and potential of the student proposals, I decided to give my students a chance to shine. I wrote a proposal to the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute to present a poster at their annual conference held in Houston in March. My proposal was accepted, so all we needed to do was create the poster and raise funds for the trip.
Fundraising was a challenge, and we weren’t able to gather enough funds to take as many students as I wanted. I flew to Houston with two students, Jason and Noah and Jason’s father Mike. My previous post describes how we arrived at the conference, set up our poster, and attended the NASA Town Hall Meeting led by Dr. Jim Green, now the Chief Scientist for NASA. In this post, I’ll describe the rest of our stay.
We were at the La Quinta just north of Bush International Airport and the conference was at The Woodlands conference center north of Houston. On our second day, we drove to the conference and spent most of the morning attending concurrent sessions on Mars exploration. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to attend a scientific conference, let me describe how it works:
Communicating Results in Science
As science teachers, we train our students on the steps of “the” scientific method. It is a nice linear sequence of steps that, if followed, the student will not go astray in their experiments. Unfortunately, no practicing scientist actually follows this process the way we outline it in our classes. Real science is much more organic and iterative. It boils down to asking questions about the world and figuring out ways to find answers. Scientists are curious about how the universe works, find questions that interest them, research what others have done, design ways to test their questions in order to get some definitive answers, and share what they’ve learned at conferences and in peer reviewed journals. Usually, the answers they find lead to new questions and the process cycles onward, spiraling down to a deeper understanding of nature.
Communicating results is essential to the process of science, so that more questions and further research can be done. A science conference is a bit like organized chaos to the uninitiated. But it boils down to three main ways of sharing the results of one’s experiments. The first is through posters presented in a large spacious hall (with hard concrete floors) and ranks of room dividers. Posters are organized by topic. In the case of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, there were posters on Mars exploration, the moons of Jupiter, the Sun, our Moon, education efforts, etc. Our poster was in the education section, which was relegated to the very back of the poster hall. There were booths by sponsors such as the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) complete with moon rocks, NASA, the PDS Geosciences Node, etc. At some conferences there are booths for university graduate programs hoping to attract candidates.
Posters are for scientists or prospective scientists (graduate students) to present preliminary results and get feedback from interested people in an informal setting. It’s kind of like putting your idea up a flagpole to see who salutes. If your research results are a bit more firm and certain, then you might apply to make a presentation with slide show as part of a concurrent session. The Mars sessions we attended were of this sort. You are given five minutes to explain your years of dedicated research and make a case for your conclusions and theories, then have two minutes to answer any questions before the next person hooks up their computer and starts to talk.
These sessions last two hours with 10-12 presenters each, and can be quite intense. An outsider would think that the audiences are universally hostile, as they will ask penetrating and sometimes even scathing questions. Of course, I’ve been to conferences where the audience really is hostile – then the fireworks fly! But most audiences are asking hard questions as a favor – to help you be more certain of your research results and point out any flaws in your data or reasoning before you try to publish a paper in a peer reviewed journal. Having a paper rejected can ruin one’s career. Presenting in this way is not for the timid or the novice, so it is a good idea to attend conferences as an undergraduate or graduate student before ever attempting to present at one.
A final way of sharing information at a scientific conference is through invited plenary sessions. These are presentations that everyone is expected to attend, with no other activities scheduled for these times, often between the concurrent sessions. These can be like the NASA Town Hall meetings at the end of the day, or they can be well-respected scientists invited to share their research.
Mars Concurrent Sessions
The Mars sessions were divided by topic, such as Mars’ atmosphere (and the results of the MAVEN mission), Mars’ geology (the results of landers and orbiters such as Curiosity or Mars Reconnaissance), the search for life on Mars (including using Earth analogs), etc.
With my students Jason and Noah there, I didn’t stay for the whole session as I normally would have. Although fascinating for me (I took many notes), quite a bit of the discussion was beyond their experience although they did make a valiant effort to stay with it. We continued there for about an hour and a half so that they could get a good taste of the types of presentations given and how these sessions work, with me giving a running commentary on why these studies were noteworthy. When I saw their eyes beginning to glaze over, we left and headed to lunch at a hamburger place around the corner from the convention center.
We stopped at a Ferrari dealership a few doors down and posed by our favorite cars, then headed back to the convention center to listen to more sessions and look through the posters in more detail. Our poster session was from 6:00 to 8:00 that evening, so we went to an early dinner at a seafood place that served Cajun crawdads and other southern delights. This was the first time Jason or Noah had tried crawdads, and it was fun to see them try to shell the lobster-like creatures. I’ve had the experience once before in Gulfport, Mississippi when I attended a planning conference at Stennis Space Center. The casino-hotel we stayed at had a crawdad broil in the courtyard, and it was unforgettable and delicious.
We returned to the convention center by 5:30 to prepare for our presentation. I wanted the students to be the ones presenting, so I had them practice answering questions and at 6:00 I backed off and let them go for it. Noah and Jason did an outstanding job of presenting to anyone who passed by what our Mars projects were about and what project-based learning (PBL) is. Being at the back of the hall meant we didn’t have quite the crowds of people as the posters toward the front, but we did have a steady stream. I knew quite a few of the people with posters around us from previous conferences I’ve been to, such as Sheri Klug-Boonstra, Christine Shupla, Paige Valderamma, and others. There was one other high school group presenting on their afterschool club and observations of asteroids. Our poster was well received, but most importantly, the students learned what it’s like to present at a real science conference.
At the end of the session we took down our poster and rolled it up so that the next group of posters could be hung up. There would be another poster session on Thursday night.
My original plan was to take the students to Johnson Space Center on Wednesday morning, but they have changed up how the center runs and built a museum/visitors center that is no longer free. We weren’t able to get tickets at a price we could afford, since we were there on a shoestring budget. So we decided to travel out to Galveston Bay to the beach for the morning.
We drove south on the 45 toward Houston, then curved east on the 670 around the beltway and on to Galveston Bay on the 225 to La Porte. There we found a nice beach (Sylvan Beach Park) with a fishing pier projecting out into the bay right next to La Porte High School (nice to have a beach in the back yard of your school). We changed into our swim trunks and enjoyed the day. Even though it was still March, the weather was warm and the water only a bit on the cool side, so very pleasant. I took photos of the pier and videos of the cargo ships entering and leaving the bay toward the Port of Houston.
After lunch we headed back to The Woodlands and the conference. We attended further sessions and looked at the new posters, including several huge photo posters of the proposed landing sites for the 2020 Mars rover. We then explored the shopping mall across the street and found a place for supper. The conference had arranged for a free showing of Hidden Figures for attendees at the mall’s theater, so we walked around the mall and waited for the show to begin.
Mars Site Selection
While waiting in line, a man I recognized walked up and joined us at the end of the line. It was Matt Golombek, who is in charge of the committee to decide landing sites for Mars probes. I had met him at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2002 during the NASA Educator Workshops for Mathematics and Science Teachers (NEWMAST) program. I had helped set up the workshop schedule, and I asked if Dr. Golombek could come and speak to the teachers, and he graciously agreed to do so. At that time he had become well known as the geologist on the Mars Pathfinder mission, and now he was trying to work out landing sites for three probes: the Insight Mission to launch in 2018, the 2020 Mars Rover, and the ESA Mars probe.
I mentioned that he was having a busy year, and he told me some of the challenges the committee was having in finding sites that had the best combination of features, narrowed down from a list of hundreds of candidates. For the Mars 2020 rover, they have decided on three possible sites: Jezero Crater (my personal favorite) northwest of Isidis Planitia, northern Sirtis Major (another good site), and a return to the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater to investigate the probable deep sea vents discovered by the Spirit rover. Its purpose will be to look for signs of life, not just if life could have been possible (like Curiosity), but actual signs of past or present life. Picking the right spot requires a safe landing ellipse without too many rocks or craters or much of a slope but near an area where life could have existed. Not an easy task!
I introduced Dr. Golombek to my students and Mike then we entered the theater and took our seats. The movie was good, and even better seeing it with scientists and NASA personnel. They got a good laugh out of seeing the book that described FORTRAN as easy to learn. I can tell you from personal experience that it isn’t.
We gassed up the rental SUV on the way back to the hotel. We slept well, then got the boys up and ready and packed and headed back to the airport. Since we were only a few miles away, it didn’t take long to return the SUV and take the shuttle to the main airport. We had over an hour to wait for our flight, so I explored the airport. They have interesting sculpture pieces that I took some photos of to show to my STEAM it Up class. The airport was quiet. I tried to read a book while waiting.
On our way home we had a connection through Dallas and took the tramway around to our departure gate and got some supper. This airport was much more busy. We boarded our flight and arrived home in Salt Lake City as scheduled. I saw Jason and Noah off with their parents and picked up my baggage. My wife and kids picked me up, and our excursion to Houston was at an end.
I don’t know if Jason or Noah will ever become planetary scientists. My taking them to Houston was not about them someday working for NASA, although I won’t rule that out. It was about exposing them to a level of discourse and professional excitement that they might never see otherwise and to find the excellence in themselves to stand up and present their ideas. They came through marvelously, and I am very proud of their performance. If I can find a way to give other students this opportunity, I will. Even though I did this at personal expense and without the support of my school, it was worthwhile.