Eighth graders photographing dust storms on Mars
CLIO, S.C. - Eighth graders in a local school are on a mission to Mars this fall to measure dust storms after a satellite orbiting the Red Planet snaps a photo for them.
Dr. Tony Curtis and Dr. Judy Curtis (Mass Communications) worked with eighth graders at Marlboro County School of Discovery in Clio, S.C., as the students devised a plan to study the dust storms. Now that plan has been accepted by the Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP), sponsored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Arizona State University’s Mars Space Flight Facility.
MSIP allows students to take their own research pictures of Mars using a camera onboard NASA’s 2001 Odyssey spacecraft orbiting that planet.
The School of Discovery is a public magnet school with 150 students. Joan Wafer is the teacher who motivated the students in her eighth grade science classes to enter the MSIP competition. They will work for three days with scientists, mission planners and educators at ASU in Tempe, Ariz.
Dr. Tony Curtis is a volunteer NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador. He and Dr. Judy Curtis advised the students on writing, researching, media and the Solar System.
“Mrs. Wafer is an amazing science teacher,” Dr. Tony Curtis said. “She is very eager to broaden the horizons of her students. She sparks their curiosity and encourages them to accomplish anything they can imagine.”
To create their MSIP proposal, the students had to learn space science and astronomy including the place of Mars in the Solar System and the history of Mars exploration with NASA explorers such as Viking, Pathfinder, Mars Exploration Rovers, Global Surveyor and Odyssey.
The professors helped students understand research methods and design and showed them how to write journalistic reports for mass media, research papers for sharing reports, and Web sites for public presentation.
The students examined mass media images of Mars from a variety of sources. They watched Hollywood's interpretation of Martian civilization and read the famous Orson Wells’ radio program The War of the Worlds.
The students eagerly read everything in their library and then turned to the World Wide Web for photos and the latest news from Mars. Their sources included NASA Mars Exploration site at mars.jpl.nasa.gov and Space Today Online at www.spacetoday.org, a site created and edited by Dr. Tony Curtis.
“We became explorers on the Internet,” they explained. “We used the technology to explore Mars that is millions of miles away and bring it right into our classroom.
“Last year, we watched the curious red object in the sky as it came closer and closer to the Earth,” the students said. “We became more curious when Mrs. Wafer said we could participate in the Mars Student Imaging Project and if we worked hard we might be selected to go to Arizona State University to see Mars a little closer.”
”The students were attracted to the idea of comparing physical processes on Mars with those on Earth,” Dr. Judy Curtis said. “Their research question is, ‘How does the elevation, latitude, and longitude affect the number of dust storms that occur on Mars?’”
The students wrote in their proposal, “Dust storms to us were the most curious and interesting looking features on Mars.” They noted that dust storms “produced strange patterns. It was surprising to see dust storms as bright patches on the Martian surface. We found out that it was due to sunlight reflecting off of the basalt dust grains.”
“Because we are in the hurricane season and experienced a tornado at our school, even though it did not produce a dust storm here, we became interested in learning about dust devils, tornadoes and dust storms and how they are formed on Mars,” the eighth graders wrote in their proposal.
The students’ slogan for their project is, “Curiosity creates interest and interest demands exploration and exploration paves the way to discovering the unknown.”
MSIP officials said the students did a “Great job! We found it to be a great project.”
The School of Discovery team will receive an image of their selected site from the 2001 Mars Odyssey satellite and submit a final scientific report for publication in the online MSIP Science Journal.
The students hope NASA will be able to use their research results for years to come as the space agency plans landing sites for future missions. The students pointed out that homes on Mars, clothing to be worn there and even laboratories will have to be designed to protect human beings from dust storms, some of which last a long time.
The students employed the scientific method. The project curriculum is aligned with National Science Education Standards and fits within existing school science curriculum. It teaches the required objectives and standards using real world science rather than worksheets or simulations.