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Durham Academy Upper School – Durham, NC

Way Cool Student Scientist, Durham Academy

As you follow the progress of the Mars Rovers, imagine what it would be like to be part of the scientific process that deciphers what Spirit and Opportunity have found. Two students and one teacher from Durham Academy in Durham, N.C. are doing more than imagine – they have joined the journey of discovery.

Howard, Craig and Adam are members of the Athena Student Interns Program (ASIP) that is giving high school students from across the nation the chance to work with the scientists of the Mars Exploration Rover Project (MER). Their mentor is Dr. Jeff Moersch from the University of Tennessee, an Athena Science Team member who analyzes data from the instrument called Mini-TES.

Mini-TES (Thermal Emissions Spectrometer) can reveal the compositions of martian rocks, soil, and atmosphere by detecting the characteristics of the infrared emissions from these materials. The Durham team has directly contributed to the mission by offering mineral samples with spectra, now catalogued into the spectral library at Arizona State University, that will help science team members decipher the information they receive from Mars.

Howard Lineberger is the teacher/leader of the Durham ASIP team. He has been on the teaching staff of Durham Academy for six years offering instruction in chemistry, astronomy and geology. Before that, he taught science for twenty years in public and private schools in the Triangle (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) and in the Chicago, Illinois areas. He states, “My role in the ASIP program is to facilitate the understanding of the geologic concepts necessary for my students, Adam and Craig, to understand the geology of Mars as it is unveiled by the Mars orbiters and the MER rovers.” Howard says he has always been inspired by NASA’s exploration of space and is thrilled with his role in the ASIP program.

Craig’s role in the mission is to work as a SAP expert user. He says, “It’s my job to look at the data from the rovers in Maestro and share what I see with the rest of the team.” Craig is on Durham’s Science Olympiad team and has twice competed at the national level. He says, “Mars fascinates me because it provides the means for us to see another world and understand what makes Earth so special. Primarily, however, I applied for this internship because I was excited at the opportunity to be a part of a great scientific endeavor.”

Adam is in charge of submitting weekly reports to ASIP Coordinator Cassie Bowman, informing her of the outreach and scientific activities that the Durham team is planning to do or has completed. He says, “During landed operations I will be working with Dr. Moersch on analyzing spectral data on mineral samples as they are relayed back to Earth from the rovers in order to identify the rocks that we find on Mars.” He adds, “The accurate identification of certain types of rocks that we expect to find will help prove the former existence of liquid water on Mars, which is suggestive that life once inhabited the surface.” Adam finds the ability to study Mars from Earth to be a fascinating process. He says, “Mars is so far away and so alien to anyone here on Earth, and yet we can send machines there which give us the illusion that we are somehow visiting that planet, when we never move off the surface of this one. It is an incredible connection to be able to see close up images of the surface of Mars, see how the rover is manipulating and observing the environment, when I am millions of miles away.”

Howard has a Masters Degree in Geology and five years of experience in mineral exploration. He draws from this training when martian data offer mineral signatures. He explains, “Certain minerals, like olivine, which has already been seen in abundance in the rocks and soil of Mars, are volcanic in origin and react quickly with water. Thus the presence of olivine means that water has not affected the materials that contain this mineral. Other minerals, such as grey hematite, carbonate minerals, and zeolites, form via processes involving liquid water, and so, can confirm the presence of liquid water on Mars at some time in the planet’s geologic past.”

In addition to his teaching, Howard enjoys coaching student athletes in the sports of football, basketball, track and golf. Since 1991, he has served as teacher and director of a summer math and science institute that has successfully inspired many underprivileged students in the Triangle areas to pursue science and math related careers. He feels that the ASIP experience also offers inspiration, “Our involvement in ASIP will greatly enhance the content of my curriculum, and I hope that perhaps a few Durham Academy students will be inspired to pursue a career in space science, perhaps with JPL or NASA.”

Craig says that he is “thrilled by this chance to broaden my scientific horizons and to involve myself in one of the greatest exploratory missions of the modern era.” However, his interests lie in linguistics. He studies the constructed language Lojban and says, “I hope to study linguistics in college and beyond.” Craig plays the trumpet and enjoys fencing, a sport he hopes to pursue throughout his life.

Adam is a senior at Durham Academy with an interest in engineering. He plans to study physics and math at Carleton College next year. He states, “Designing, building, testing, and fixing machines have always been preoccupations of mine. For the past five years this has taken the form of Science Olympiad, where I have competed at regional, state and national levels.” He also enjoys playing drums and listening to a variety of music including jazz, rock, and some classical.

A close encounter with the Mars Exploration Rovers has given Adam insight into the people and the mechanisms that make a space mission work. He says, “The most exciting thing about this mission is the exposure that I am getting to the people and places associated with the Mars program. I have met many people who are directly and indirectly responsible for major accomplishments in the field of space exploration, and that is something that most people do not get the chance to do.” Regarding last year’s trip to the Jet Propulsion Lab to prepare for landed operations, Adam states “it gave me a chance to get behind the scenes to see what goes on at NASA. It was fascinating to see where and how the engineers build the rovers themselves, and to see the field tests of the rovers that have been kept here.”

The Durham team looks forward to joining Dr. Moersch and the rest of the MER science team at the Jet Propulsion Lab at the end of March. Howard quips, “Perhaps a key observation will be made by this threesome from Durham Academy.”