Educator Features

Desert Education
Today's students are the future explorers of the moon and Mars. On that foundation, the education division at NASA's Ames Research Center in California developed Spaceward Bound, which allows teachers to experience field-based scientific research and take it to their classrooms.

Liza Coe, lead for technology education at Ames, said the future of space exploration begins now with the educators' instructing the next generation of explorers. "The kids that are now in middle school are the ones that are going to be going to the moon and Mars," she said. "We need to start training them now and getting them enthusiastic about this great adventure we're all on."

Spaceward Bound, Coe said, is based on the idea that the best way to train teachers how to do scientific research is to take them out in the field with scientists. "We want the teachers to bring this material back into the classroom," she said. "So, as the teachers experience the science and the science processes, we hope that they will work on ways to bring that into the classroom in really authentic ways, so the kids aren't just learning science from a book, but they're learning it from the experiences of their teachers."

Group posing in front of a row of palm trees
Image to right: Scientists and educators at the Spaceward Bound: Mojave Desert Expedition pose for a group photo. Credit: NASA

Ames completed the third Spaceward Bound expedition in March 2007. Educators from around the U.S. joined NASA scientists in the Mojave Desert at the California State University Desert Research Station in southern California. The first expedition sent teachers from the U.S. and Chile to work alongside scientists in the Mars-like environment of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. In the second expedition, upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level students and teachers went to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah for two-week-long simulations of living and working conditions on the moon and Mars.

"We've been doing expeditions into extreme environments for many years as a way of preparing for NASA's search for life on Mars and its exploration to the moon," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at Ames and the lead for the Mojave Desert expedition. "We thought we needed to start training the next generation of space explorers, and what better way to do that than to bring their teachers out into the field and to integrate them into our research expeditions. We're still here doing science, doing the research we'd normally be doing, and the teachers are being folded into that."

The scientists and educators in the Mojave studied microbial life in the desert and the similarities of geologic formations to those of the moon and Mars. Teams also used a hot air balloon to test new remote-sensing equipment to detect subterranean formations. The expedition included educators from the NASA Explorer Schools project and NASA's Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers.

The NASA Explorer Schools project promotes and supports the incorporation of NASA content into the classroom to enhance instruction in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The project targets underserved populations in diverse geographic locations.

Teachers standing on a sand dune
The Network of Educator Astronaut Teachers is a group of outstanding teachers from around the U.S. selected from applicants for the Educator Astronaut project. NEAT members attend workshops and seminars at NASA centers to improve their ability to teach STEM topics.

Image to left: NEAT members Luther Richardson, Rob Palassou, Mike Marchiondo, Naomi Volain, Kathy Hartrum and Evan Justin explore sand dunes in the Mojave Desert. Credit: Evan Justin

Doug Porter is a NEAT member who teaches at Rising Sun-Ohio County Community Schools in Rising Sun, Ind. During the expedition, he was part of a team that explored desert crusts, a combination of organisms that form a mat of living matter on the desert floor. He described the crusts as black and lumpy and often having maze-like patterns. His team questioned whether those patterns are the result of a predictable living process or are random. Porter said the expedition was a great opportunity to see scientists ask questions and work together to find the answers.

"The one thing we all really want our students to be able to do is to think like scientists," Porter said. "But what does that really mean? ... I found that scientists think by asking questions. They think by making observations, gathering information, and, most importantly, collaborating with and inspiring each other. That is what makes the Spaceward Bound program so powerful. It gives all of us the opportunity to be a team, to inspire each other, and to think and work like scientists."

Danielle Hartkern participated in the geology research. Hartkern teaches at Central Park Middle School, a NASA Explorer School in Schenectady, N.Y. One area of interest on the geology tour was lava tubes, which are cave-like areas formed beneath the surface of a lava flow. Scientists are searching for formations in the desert that could help them find and explore lava tubes on the moon or Mars as potential habitats for astronauts.

Hartkern said the NASA scientists were able to explain the science behind what they are doing in a way that the educators could easily understand. "I teach about these topics but do not have a degree in geology; therefore I was thrilled to be able to be out in the field with scientists gaining more than just surface knowledge about fossils, volcanoes and the rock cycle in general," she said.

A vehicle-like robot in the desert
Image to right: Scientists use robotic rovers to explore extreme environments in the Mojave Desert as preparation for exploring the extreme environments on the moon and Mars. Credit: Dan Wray

Several educators planned to show their students the usefulness of robots to explore extreme environments. Luther Richardson, a NEAT member who teaches physics at Columbus High School in Columbus, Ga., plans to enhance a small, robotic rover built by his students with some of the technology he saw. "We'll try to integrate some sensors into this (robot) where it can send information back to us and really simulate the kind of things we want to do on Mars," Richardson said. "I would hope that the students I have will be able to walk into a job setting, start going to college and not be surprised by what they see there, and be able to contribute."

Carey Sperling plans to build a robotic rover with his students like the ones used in the desert. Sperling teaches aviation and aerospace at Jim Bridger Middle School, a NASA Explorer School in Las Vegas, Nev. "I was really examining (the robots) very closely and noticed that they didn't look that difficult to build," Sperling said. "We already have a robotics program at our school where the kids build robots with the LEGO Mindstorms kits, and I thought that it would be really neat for the older students to actually try to build -- or hopefully succeed in building -- a rover similar to the one that we used."

Sperling said every aspect of what he did during the expedition can be applied in his classes. "I think as our future astronauts and explorers, (students) really need to learn how to do all of this stuff," he said.

A beam of white light shines on explorers in a dark cave
NEAT member Jim Kuhl was part of a team using thermal-imaging cameras to search for lava tubes from a low-flying hot air balloon. Kuhl is already using NASA content in his sixth-grade Earth science classes at Central Square Middle School in New York. He said the Spaceward Bound experience has given him even more to share.

Image to left: Sunlight shines into a lava tube through a skylight, which is a broken entrance into the ceiling of a lava tube. Credit: Dan Wray

"Every unit I teach contains a significant section about NASA," Kuhl said. "Whether it is using satellite images to find areas rich in fossils, ground truthing cloud observations taken by the Terra and Aqua satellites for NASA's S'COOL project, or using satellite data from a GPS receiver to navigate using topographic maps, NASA is a part of it all. ... I find students -- even those who tend to be less motivated by school -- attentive and interested when NASA enters the topics we are studying."

Kuhl has used hot air balloon activities with his students, too, and said the NASA research is similar to what he and his students have been doing. "We've been trying to fly some instruments in our balloons, and the fact that I've seen them flying instruments here kind of validates what we're doing," Kuhl said. "We're going to be doing another flight ... and trying some of the things that they're trying here."

Several teachers most enjoyed working closely with scientists and taking part in their research. Robin Salonich plans to tell her students at Sandhills Middle School, a NASA Explorer School in Gaston, S.C., that scientists really do use the scientific method taught in class. "When we were doing a rock sampling with (a NASA geologist), she went through step-by-step and showed us how she did some collections," Salonich said. "And then she pulls out her science notebook and starts taking notes and measurements and GPS coordinates and writing down what she'd done, and she begins to draw exactly where the rock sampling was and what it looked like.

"In our classrooms in K-8, we've begun science notebooking, so this will be definitely an important factor to bring back to show them that, yes, what you're doing in the classroom is relative, and scientists do do this, and it actually does happen in the real world."

Related Resources
+ Spaceward Bound Project


+ NASA Ames Research Center

+ NASA Explorer Schools

+ NASA Education Web site
Evan Justin also enjoyed the time spent with the many scientists and educators who deeply love what they do. Justin is a NEAT member and a middle school science teacher at McMurray Middle School in Vashon Island, Wash. "The samples, experiences, data, and ideas I collected ... will fuel much good and exciting work at McMurray and beyond for quite some time," Justin said.

Dan Wray didn't wait until he got back to share the experience with his students. Wray, a science teacher at Lakeview Middle School in Warsaw, Ind., and a NEAT member, was one of several teachers who kept a blog while in the desert. Wray's blog discussed the events from each day and included assignments for his students instructing them to research a specific topic that he was exploring in the desert and answer questions about it.

"My educational philosophy centers on the idea that teachers cannot truly transfer knowledge or wisdom to students but must interest and excite students regarding new ways to see and describe the world in which they live," Wray said. "To this end, I am in constant search of innovative ways to provide authentic opportunities for students to spark their enthusiasm. NASA has been a wonderful resource, since by its very nature and reputation its purpose is innovation and discovery."

Through projects like Spaceward Bound, NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation's education. It is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA’s future engineering, scientific and technical missions.

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services