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Silver Stage High School — Silver Springs, NV

The ASIP team from Silver Springs, NV came away from their trip to the Jet Propulsion Lab with tremendous respect for the people who conduct the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission. “We are truly in awe of their enormous ability to stay focused with the many distractions that flow through their world daily,” says Jim Berryman-Shafer, teacher at Silver Stage High School. He explains, “One minute they are discussing the possible origin of a type of rock formation, the next they are figuring out the best camera angle for a picture, and literally seconds later they may be fielding a question from a reporter. All of this is while assembling sequences for the rover to execute the next sol.”

Jim, Shannon, and Matt 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 Wendy Calvin, an Athena Science Team member who is an associate professor at the University of Nevada in Reno. Dr. Calvin uses data from Mini-TES to help identify rocks and minerals on Mars.

While immersed in mission activities for the Opportunity rover at JPL, the Silver Stage team learned that scientists deal with a lot of stress. Jim says, “We have seen that real science is a lot of work. It is taking tedious measurements and recording the results. It is fighting with new software to make it complete a task that is needed. … Science is staying alert through the myriad of meetings that take place every day, always interrupting your research. Science is asking questions that may not be answered for years. Science is debating what findings mean with others who may have different ideas. Science is constantly learning new things.”

Shannon experienced what it’s like to be in front of television cameras and an audience of reporters. She was shoulder to shoulder with a panel of scientists during a NASA press briefing. She says, “The press conference was exciting. It was scary to think of all the people watching. I practiced answering questions I thought would be asked. I was amazed at all the people who told me they had seen me on TV.”

Matt’s favorite experience at JPL was working with the Lab’s sophisticated computers and software. He states, “We saw many of the computer programs the scientists use to sort data, process information, and analyze images. One of these programs is SAP.” SAP stands for Science Activity Planner. Matt explains, “They use two monitors for each computer almost everywhere so that Uplink and Downlink can appear together without overlapping or hiding the other. The Uplink is where the scientists create sequences for the rover, and Downlink is where the images from the rover appear.” He adds, “I wish I could get the local version of SAP on my computer, but with a minimum of 512 MB of RAM needed to run it, there’s no way a 5-year-old eMachine with 32 MB of RAM and 3.0 GB of space could ever handle its enormous capacities.”

Silver Stage High School sits in a Mars-like setting — the high desert and vast vistas of Nevada. It is a new school that offers a number of technology classes including electronics, robotics, and web design. Shannon and Matt were in the first robotics class at Silver Stage. Jim says, “They learned how to get their robots to follow their commands — most of the time. They also experienced first hand the joys and disappointments of robotic programming. They are watching with keen interest as the rovers travel over the martian surface.”

Shannon sees Mars as a treasure chest of unsolved mysteries. She says, “You never know what you will find and when you do it’s extremely exciting. There is so much history on Mars that is still yet to be discovered. … The excitement never stops.” Excitement of another kind occupies Shannon’s spare time. She drives a stock car at Reno-Fernley Raceway. Her activities in school include Leadership Class, Student Council, Junior Class President, and Varsity Cheerleading. Her favorite subject is history.

Matt finds an analogy for the exploration of our neighboring planet: “Mars is like a next-door neighbor that you know nothing about and the rover is like your dog running next door to check up on them before you do, except my dog takes 7 seconds to get next door, not 7 months.” He says that the most exciting aspect of being part of the Mars Rover mission is to work with a diverse group of people he might have never met if it had not been for the ASIP program. He states, “A lot of people have made fun of me for almost all of my years in school, mainly because I usually do better than them with grades. But putting up with it was worth it because I went to Pasadena and worked with NASA!”

Matt’s scientific interests include computers, robotics, and marine biology. He enjoys playing the trombone, bowling, video games, card tricks, football, and building with his hands.

Jim started his teaching career in 1976 as a first grade teacher on a Navajo Indian Reservation. He then moved to Alaska where he worked with emotionally disturbed students and lead outdoor adventures. Returning to the lower 48 states, he took a job teaching a combined 6-7-8th grade class in a town of 400. A number of teaching positions later Jim found himself ready to take on the unique opportunity of teaching at Silver Stage High School.

In his free time Jim enjoys hiking, camping, and doing things outdoors. He runs ultra distance races and has finished a number of 50 and 100 mile races. He starts his day at 2:00 a.m., running 10 miles before school. Some years, he runs more miles than he drives.

Jim sees Mars as a new frontier. “Working with machines we are able to explore in an environment that is very hostile to humans, but may hold some of the keys to understanding about the formation of the Earth. Also the opportunity for the students is phenomenal; to take part in “real science” is invaluable,” he says. Jim adds that Silver Springs has long been considered a community “at risk” and that many of its students do not graduate from high school. He states, “For the new high school to be chosen for this project helps reinforce the fact that people have the ability to do great things regardless of their environment.”

The Silver Stage team has taken what they’ve learned to other schools and have reached more than 1,000 people. Jim says there is a huge interest in the mission in Northern Nevada, “Our last school was in Reno and we talked to 420 students K–6th grade. … The students were very enthusiastic and had a lot of questions at the end of our presentation. … Shannon has been interviewed by all the local TV stations and we have been featured in the Reno newspaper twice.”

Jim, Shannon, and Matt feel that their ASIP experience will continue to have a positive impact in their community and in their lives in the future. “The SSHS students will always be able to look at the ASIP participants as a huge success for themselves and this community. The high school, as well as participation in the ASIP program, are helping to improve perceptions of the community and highlight the positive aspects of this area,” says Jim. Shannon states, “Trying new things can help you discover the things you may not have known about yourself. When you discover these things, you will be amazed at yourself.” Adds Matt, “This experience has allowed me to discover new interests that could lead me to careers that actually make working fun and exciting.”