To Infinity and Beyond: Galvanizing Students to Reach for the Stars



What inspired you to work at NASA? How long does it take to get to Mars?

What if alien life was on Mars before the water left? Could you survive on Mars with a spacesuit?

Rio Rancho public school students who attended a week-long Virtual Summer Academy on Native Americans in July rocked the Google Meet chat box with these questions and more.

The students, aged from kindergarten to high school, were mesmerized by the story of Aaron Yazzie, a NASA Diné mechanical engineer who is part of the Mars Perseverance Rover project. As head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he helped design the drill bits that unearth sand and rock from Red Planet, the material that will eventually arrive on Earth for analysis.

The Yazzie session took place four days after Richard Branson’s supersonic Virgin Galactic spacecraft zoomed in the New Mexico skies, remained in space for several minutes, re-entered our planet’s atmosphere and landed safely at Spaceport America in T or C.

“To all the kids out there – I was once a kid with a dream, looking at the stars,” Branson told CNN. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship… If we can do it, imagine what you can do. “

Those who achieve greatness have the power to transform children’s lives, especially when our students see someone who is like them in the stories. I experienced this with our Summer Academy this year.

When we reached out to Yazzie he was eager to meet our Indigenous participants, in part, we learned later, as it was the summer programs that motivated him to follow the path he took; they opened doors he never knew were there for him.

The morning after Yazzie shared photos taken by the rover, including a selfie and video of the Integrity helicopter embarking on its first Martian flight, our students wanted more. We shared the three-minute NASA video as the spacecraft gracefully landed on Mars on February 18.

Unlike any textbook, course, or experiment, our students’ enthusiasm for learning was out of this world, all because they suddenly saw complex science as human.

As Yazzie says, “As we reach out to our younger siblings to help them achieve their dreams, we also need to make sure that there is a safe and inclusive place for them in STEM (science, technology, technology). engineering and mathematics) – a place for them not only to exist, but also to be the best they can be.

As amazing science news populates social media, it’s a star-filled moment for our children to imagine all the possibilities and potential.

Let’s open doors – and portals – that our students never even knew were there for them. Let’s make sure they look up and imagine.

(Kelly Pearce, a senior member of Teach Plus New Mexico, is the Kindergarten to Grade 12 education coordinator at Rio Rancho public schools..)



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