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Encouraging the Next Generation of Space Explorers
11.29.10
Strudents search for craters on Mars. Sarah Esper of UCSD finds a crater with Katrina, a 4th grade Mars explorer.
By Tom Soderstrom, IT Chief Technology Officer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is encouraging the next generation of space explorers to play an active role in space exploration. JPL's office of outreach, the missions office, and the Chief Information Officer (CIO) are innovating together to reach the public in new and innovative ways and with new technologies.

This outreach takes many forms, such as:
  • Twittering and blogging about the Mars Phoenix Lander and Mars rovers
  • Holding a contest where Clara Ma, a 12-year old, renamed the next Mars flagship mission from Mars Science Laboratory to Curiosity
  • Encouraging citizen scientists of all ages to help explore Mars by tagging craters and other features in a quarter million actual Mars images in Microsoft's Azure cloud through the games on the Be a Martian Web site
  • Encouraging developers to write programs to drive extraterrestrial rovers via the E4 Rover Challenge, where all the data and programs were in Amazon's Cloud
A new effort encourages minority students to become interested in science and technology. A group of JPL developers is mentoring four minority college students, advised by Dr. Beth Simon at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to build Mars2Earth. Mars2Earth is an outreach application designed to deliver Mars data to elementary school students. These students use the application to interact with Mars imagery and perform citizen science by identifying interesting features. Mars2Earth is written entirely in Google Web Toolkit (GWT), and it is deployed on the Google App Engine (GAE) cloud. This powerful combination allows the college students to deliver a full-production application without utilizing any infrastructure from UCSD or JPL and to bring an anytime space exploration experience to elementary school classrooms and homes.

In a recent field test conducted by members of JPL's Operations and Planning Software (OPS) Lab and JPL's Office of the CIO, Sarah Esper, a college student developer on the project, introduced the project to fourth-grade students at an elementary school in San Diego, CA. The results were breathtaking. The project sparked an immediate interest and an extraordinary level of participation from the students. The teacher was specifically impressed with how effectively the application engages fourth graders that read at or below grade level and are often quiet during discussions. Khawaja Shams, a developer at JPL and co-lead for Mars2Earth, shared his enthusiasm for the application. "It has provided a fruitful expansion of the relationship between JPL and UCSD. Dr. Simon's students have delivered tools to infuse a passion for space and robotics into young minds." This is a vision that is echoed by NASA and JPL.