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Ramsay High School and Shades Valley International Baccalaureate School — Birmingham, Alabama

Ramsay High School students Chris and Ben probably did not know they would have the unique opportunity to play an active role in planetary exploration. However, that is exactly what they are doing. They have been working side by side with top scientists in the fields of astronomy, geology, nuclear physics, and astrophysics to explore the geological history of Mars.

Sandra McKell, Chris and Ben are members of the Athena Student Interns Program (ASIP) which is giving high school students from across the nation the chance to work with the scientists of the Mars Rover mission. Their mentor is Professor Thomas Wdowiak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He is an Athena Science Team member whose specialty is the Mössbauer Spectrometer. Sandra states, “The Mössbauer Spectrometer is being used to identify iron-bearing minerals on the surface of Mars. We can use this information to determine the origin of the geological characteristics of the area. Some of the minerals that will help us determine the history of the martian terrain are hematite, goethite, olivine, and magnetite.”

On a recent trip to the Jet Propulsion Lab, the Birmingham team was immersed in Mössbauer matters. They calculated time and temperature readings taken during the use of the Mössbauer Spectrometer to determine the heat relationship between the inside and the outside of the instrument. These temperature ratios will be used should one of the two temperature monitors have difficulties. The team also examined Mössbauer data returned from Spirit and Opportunity, and learned that meetings are a big part of the scientific process. They sat in on Science Assessment Meetings, and took part in a Robotics Education Working Group videoconference.

Sandra teaches Biology, Microbiology, and Genetics in the Birmingham City Schools. “Being a part of ASIP is probably the highlight of my career. This has been a wonderful experience for my 2 students and myself to work with the science team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. I have learned so much about Mars and spectroscopy, even though this is not a part of my teaching experience. My students have done so much research in preparation for their work at JPL and it has been an honor to work along with them.”

Sandra is married and has two children. She has taught science for the past 26 years and says she has seen teaching methods change dramatically in that time. Her students perform DNA fingerprinting, protein and DNA electrophoresis, cross Drosophila fruit flies, genetically transform bacteria, and purify proteins. “Science is probably one of the most exciting courses to teach. Students enter your room with the eagerness to learn through a wide array of hands on laboratory experiences.”

Chris, a junior at Ramsay High School, has had an interest in space and science since he was a child. He and his dad would often gaze at the planets, stars, and other brilliant astronomical bodies. Chris has an avid interest in chemistry and physics. He also plays the trumpet and euphonium. He wants to pursue an education involving nuclear and quanta physics and conduct research in the field of propulsion. He says, “This program has definitely taught me many things about science in general and about the process that is used to explore other planets. It has also solidified my ambitions and focused my energies toward the future.”

Ben, a senior at the Shades Valley International Baccalaureate School, actually heard about ASIP while doing his summer research in a University of Alabama at Birmingham astronomy lab. The title of his project was “Formation of an Interstellar Dust Analog” and it concentrated on the infrared spectrum of a Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbon plasma product. He presented this project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. He plans to pursue a career in engineering or computer science. Ben says, “Since I was young, I’ve always held a passion for science and I was especially interested in seeing the different ways that science could be applied. This is one of the things that first drew me to computer science and engineering.” Ben is also active in the theatre program at his school when he is not studying.

During the October 2003 Preliminary Operational Readiness Test (PORT) at JPL, the Birmingham ASIP team learned how to operate the computer software program, Science Activity Planner, which the scientists use to maneuver the rovers. They also became acquainted with NASA protocols that are used during the Mars mission, and they learned that working on Mars time is not easy. A martian day lasts approximately 24 hours and 40 minutes. Each daily shift changes by those 40 additional minutes.

Sandra, Chris, and Ben have been busy sharing all this new information with different school groups and the science museums in the Birmingham area. Chris’ dad, Tim, shares the same excitement about the mission, and has printed a steady flow of visual materials for the ASIP team’s many outreach programs.

The Birmingham team sees some similarities in the geology of the Birmingham area and Mars. “Ramsay High School sits in the shadow of Red Mountain, an area named for its high concentration of iron ore, much like the Red Planet,” offers Sandra.

Chris finds a similarity that is personal. He states, “Being a part of ASIP will help pave the way to my future, much like the rovers pave the way for further exploration of Mars.”

Sandra adds, “We are very proud to be one of 13 teams in the United States that have the unique privilege to play an active role in planetary exploration. Dreams can come true for those who aim high.”