Earlier this month, courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), students at Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy were transported to another planet: Mars. Three speakers from JPL, Principal Investigator of the NASA Imagine Mars Project Michelle Vioti, User Interface Designer Matt Clausen, and Systems Engineer Nagin Cox, visited Locke as part of its JetSpace Talks series.
The JPL speakers, who refer to themselves as “Martians” spoke to students about JPL’s goal to one day send a human to Mars. For many students, this encounter was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’ve always been interested in space and other planets,” said Locke ninth grader Skylar Davis.
“Growing up, I’d watch the news and see people from NASA and JPL doing mind-blowing things, and I knew I always wanted to meet them!”
Since 2012, JPL’s car-sized robot, referred to as the Curiosity Rover, has explored Mars’ surface and provided JPL with information necessary to plan a mission for human exploration.
Journey to Mars
Students were able to explore the surface of Mars themselves using the Microsoft HoloLens. The HoloLens differs from typical virtual reality devices in that it is a self-contained, holographic computer, which enables the user to engage with digital content and holograms in the world around them better. As students walked around the JetSpace with the device on, they were actually exploring the red planet’s sandy dunes. They were able to look upon the Mars horizon and interact with the Curiosity Rover all from the JetSpace.
“It was amazing, I felt like I was really on Mars,” said Locke eleventh grader Dennis Morgan. “I would have never tried the HoloLens if I didn’t come here today.”
The JPL visit was an opportunity for students to gain insight about STEM opportunities and learn firsthand from experts in the field. “It’s amazing that NASA is here, this is an opportunity to broaden my horizons and those of my students,” said Locke Biology teacher Dennis Stein.
“We are fortunate. JPL is only on the other side of town, and the rest of the country doesn’t have access to this, but thanks to the JetSpace, we do.”
The “Martians” educated students on Mars, JPL’s mission, and shared their own personal motivations for pursuing a career at NASA. “I wanted to work at JPL since I was a 14-year-old girl living in India. Early on, I ran into an awareness that there was a difference in expectations of what girls can do and what boys can do,” said Cox. “I knew I wanted to work on something that would not separate people, but bring all people together.”
Cox’s colleague shared a similar experience; growing up, Matt Clauson had a passion for space and a strong talent in art. “My dad told me not to pursue the arts, and really discouraged me from taking that path,” said Clausen. After getting his master’s degree in film and animation, he worked briefly at JPL before going into education, then eventually found his way back to JPL. “My non-traditional journey taught me to keep following your passions and not to be afraid of failure.”
The “Martians’” stories resonated with Locke students, displaying what hard work and following one’s passion can lead to. “I’ve always been fascinated by the stars and space, so after high school I want to pursue a career in astronomy,” said Locke junior, Isaac Rac. “Today gave me insight into Mars and the possibility of working at JPL.”
The JetSpace is a 21st century innovation space and library that provides an opportunity for students to engage with inspiring mentors from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, exercise creativity, and build self-directed learning skills, with the aid of cutting edge technology. The JetSpace seeks to prepare students for next generation employment through comprehensive passion-based programming in literacy, music, and STEM while providing students with access to networking opportunities.
By facilitating students’ relationships with professionals and encouraging intellectual curiosity, the JetSpace hopes to provide students with access to experiences that broaden their idea of what’s possible for the future– both their own, and humankind’s.