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Way Cool Scientist

The flood plains of the Missouri River, the Mojave Desert, and the dusty surface of Mars may seem like unlikely playgrounds — but for scientists like Ray Arvidson, all make great terrain for studying the processes that shape land forms. Arvidson, James S. McDonnell Distinquished University Professor, Washington University in St. Louis, explores these locations with students by taking them where the action is and setting them loose.

Arvidson brings excitement to the classroom by giving students firsthand experience asking, researching, and answering geoscience questions. His students examine the environmental hazards and sustainability of the Missouri River's ravaged flood plain through comparative analysis of remote sensing, field, and laboratory observations.

Viking Lander
  Mars Landscape. This image was acquired at the Viking Lander 2 site. Some parts of the Lander are visible in the foreground.  

Funded in part by the Hewlett Foundation, he works together with an anthropologist and a political science professor to develop coursework that combines natural and earth sciences with an examination of cultural factors. Interdisciplinary studies such as this are at the core of Arvidson's work.

"When I went to school I sat through a lot of boring lectures and tests. The best way to learn, I think, is through active involvement in something that's real. Any student can do this. That's the idea," says Arvidson, "but without mentoring, none of this would work."

Recently named Professor of the Year by the Washington University Student Union, recipient of the Missouri Excellence in Teaching Award, and Advisor of the Year by the freshman class, Arvidson's approach to teaching has not gone unnoticed. Now, as the leader of the 2001 and 2003 Mars Mission's Science Operations Working Groups (SOWGs), he's found another arena for learning.

Arvidson and others are taking high school students along for the exploration of a lifetime with the Mars Missions APEX and Athena. Coordinating with Mars investigators in three other cities, Arvidson joined other scientists and teachers to form and mentor an integrated group of students called the LAPIS (Los Angeles, Phoenix, Ithaca, and St. Louis) team.

In April 1999, over thirty students and their teachers from four cities participated over the Internet in field tests of the FIDO (Field Integrated Design and Operation) Rover, a prototype of the rover that will be on board the 2003 and 2005 missions. The group developed its own mission plan for exploration and discovery, then worked together to test it out in the Mojave Desert.

Spring Break field trip
  Out in the field. Ray Arvidson (back row, in the yellow shirt) leading the Hewlett 104 Natural Sciences Subgroup 1999 Spring Break field trip.  

As leader of the FIDO field trials, Arvidson and his colleagues weren't sure if testing in this way could be carried out successfully. With so many people of such varying degrees of expertise spread out across the U.S., nothing of this scale had been tried before.

"The amazing thing is," Arvidson says, "it worked. The students learned how to work together over great distances and how to tie together a lot of different knowledge that they had already learned in new ways."

The LAPIS team commanded the FIDO rover over the Internet, guiding it over rocks and collecting geologically interesting data and samples. Since the Mojave Desert has a terrain similar to Mars, remote commanding trials test the limits of the rover design before the rover's debut on Mars — a performance the whole world will be watching. Once there, simple problems could threaten the entire mission's success.

The FIDO Rover, poised on the brink of the breakout channel at Silver Lake.

Arvidson and others were in the Silver Lake area of the Mojave Desert to to direct and observe the FIDO rover's performance closely, coordinate the LAPIS effort, and archive all the data from the trial. Although there were few unexpected problems, there was one big thing Arvidson didn't count on in the desert — rain.

When the engineers worried that it would rain on FIDO, Arvidson, having traveled to the region several times before, offered advice that would later come to haunt him.

"I told them it never rains in the desert, don't worry. Who knew that April 1999 would be one of the wettest months on record in the Mojave?" explains Arvidson. "As we sat waiting under the canopy for the rain to stop, the team kept joking about it and what I'd said. We did have a great field test, though, despite the weather."

Arvidson will continue to lead field tests of FIDO for the next several years (there's one next year, too) and will lead the organization of all the landed scientific instruments for investigating the soil, rocks, and dust dynamics of Mars. He is also Deputy Principal Investigator for both the APEX and Athena rovers and an Interdisciplinary Scientist for Mars Global Surveyor. His participation in these missions may have barely begun, but Arvidson has had his sights set on Mars for a long time.

"I was around ten years old about the time of Sputnik. The whole idea of putting spacecraft into space and the spirit of exploration had me hooked," says Arvidson.

From shooting off balloon rockets in his New Jersey backyard to participating in the Viking Missions to Mars in the 1970s, Mars has always been at the forefront of Arvidson's investigative nature.

"It's about exploration and discovery...wherever you can find it. The coolest part is the high degree of excitement in going out and experiencing it all for yourself," says Arvidson of his work. "The hard part is communicating what you find out."