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High school course leads to careers with NASA
Over the last few years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has embarked on new efforts to seek out skilled and driven youth to fill some of the world's most important science and engineering jobs. One branch of this effort is a high school science course called Earth Systems Science Research (ESSR). Recently completing its third year, this program has already led some students to internships and jobs, and rekindling an interest in science for others.

Suggested by NASA, the ESSR course began as a collaboration between school systems in Carroll and Frederick County, Md. A group of teachers and NASA representatives worked together to create a unique curriculum involving nine weeks of independent student research, culminating in a symposium at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where students present their findings to some of the world’s leading scientists.

The forerunner of this program has been Catoctin High School in northern Frederick County.

"Students get to interact with scientists, with engineers, computer visualization experts, and get to see the people that are doing it," said Lisa Bruck, Catoctin’s ESSR teacher, discussing the field trip to Goddard. "I think that’s a great experience for them."

The visits to Goddard have proven to be a life-altering experience for some students year after year. After the first symposium, one student was offered an internship involving MODIS, an Earth imaging satellite instrument. Because of a statistical discovery she made during that time, she was even listed on a research paper as a contributor. In other years, two students have received 6-week paid internships at Goddard, and several others have job shadowed or requested information about other employment opportunities.

One of the students who did not take an internship with NASA still benefited from his research background in the ESSR course. As a freshman in college, a professor heard about his experience in the class and offered him a job during winter break. That background helped him get his foot in the door, and this summer he will be working in Montana for the National Science Foundation.

Although not obvious, ESSR has had an impact on most of the students who have taken it.

"Some have rethought what they may want to do because of the experience of the class," Bruck said. "Something sparked; something was of interest to them they didn’t even know existed before going through the course."

What makes the course so effective is its unique curriculum. The first nine weeks are spent giving students a broad introduction to the Earth’s systems, or spheres, including the atmosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, and the Sun-Earth connection. In the second nine weeks, each student chooses a research project, usually involving an investigation between phenomena occurring in two different spheres, such as hurricanes and disease outbreaks, and then seeks any possible correlation between the two by searching online databases, sharing information, and occasionally even contacting scientists by phone or email. Through this process, students not only learn about the connections between Earth’s systems, but also how to analyze data and how to ask the right questions and refine searches to find that data in the first place.

Plans for the future of the ESSR course include expanding it to more high schools, putting more emphasis on space science, and creating ESSR 2, where students who struggled with the time constraints of the first class can have a full eighteen weeks to create an in-depth research project.

NASA also hopes to recruit more talented youth by offering remote internships, where students who are too far away to commute to Goddard can crunch numbers or perform other tasks from home or school.

Many students who have taken the Earth Systems Science Research course cite it as one of their favorite experiences in high school. Through continued support this program shows great promise to educate and inspire students of all backgrounds and interests, including the next generation of NASA scientists and engineers.

Scott Zuke
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center