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Photos by Stephen K. Peeples.

Dennis Young shows the students one of the Mars rover's wheels.

Scientists and engineers from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory took Santa Clarita Elementary School students to Mars Thursday as the Saugus school celebrated “JPL Day.”

JPL scientists visited SCE to wow the kids with presentations, videos and interactive demonstrations of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s latest mission to the fourth rock from the sun.

“NASA and JPL in particular have something called the Education and Public Outreach Office,” said Dennis Young, JPL’s lead resource analyst for the Mars Science Laboratory, and coordinator of the day’s activities.

“It’s a mandate for us to reach out to the public, in particular K-12, and get them excited about engineering and science,” Young said. “My son Evan happens to attend kindergarten at this school, and I could bring him to JPL any day and do this, but why not expose all 500 kids to the same thing that my son can get on a one-on-one?”

Young and a few fellow JPL engineers displayed a full-scale inflatable model of the actual Mars rover, and delivered a 25-minute presentation about the current Mars mission, which included a short video to bring the students up to date on the latest data and images received from the Lab on the Red Planet.

“The Mars Science Laboratory launched around Thanksgiving and we’re landing on Mars Aug. 5,” Young said. “This is the most ambitious NASA project we have had to the Martian surface in our history. We’re effectively landing a rover the size of a Humvee on the surface of Mars. It is going to help us detect what the surface composition of Mars (is) and hopefully find out what the history of water on Mars is. The reason that’s significant scientifically is because water means life. That’s not to say we’ll find life, but that sure gives us a pretty good indication of what’s to come.”

The Humvee-sized inflatable Mars Rover model landed on the front lawn at Santa Clarita Elementary.

Young’s ulterior motive is entirely positive and shared by Dianne Saunders, Santa Clarita Elementary’s principal, Kathi Lund, the school’s Library Media Specialist and assistant to the GATE (gifted and talented education) program, and all the teachers on the staff.

“The real reason we’re here is to get the kids excited about math, engineering and science,” Young said. “Hopefully we will get a whole new crop of kids that say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to do. I want to be an engineer, I want to be a scientist. I want to go into these fields because they’re cool, they’re exciting and they make exciting things happen.”

Somewhere along the line, Young said, “Science, math and engineering became associated with geekiness. But after today, that association will vanish very quickly. This is extremely cool. The adults are excited, the kids are excited.”

Young said elementary school is just the place to start that re-association of science and cool.

“You’ve got to plant the seeds at grade school and junior high school-level, before they get that idea that this is geeky, this is not cool,” he said.

“You want to get them excited now, stir the passions now, because something as simple as building with Lego bricks can get kids excited about engineering and building things,” Young said. “You talk to a lot of folks who do work at NASA and you will find their favorite toys as kids were Lego bricks. So, getting them started early is absolutely critical. (It’s) amazing what you can do with a kid who’s inspired by an event like this, or a great teacher who gets them turned on to math, science and engineering. Not only that, but it’s also  critical to the future of our country that we have engineers, scientists and mathematicians.”

A “JPL Day” highlight for the students was a wheels-on demonstration of a smaller working model of the rover’s chassis, nicknamed Sammy.

JPL engineer Fabien Nicaise lined up rows of kids on the floor of the school’s multi-purpose room and drove the electrically powered model over their backs, demonstrating how the real rover’s independently controlled wheels can easily roll over rocks and other obstacles on the Martian surface.

The kids giggled as Sammy rolled over them. “It felt weird, like you were getting tickled,” said fourth-grader Michael Yoo (pictured in the blue shirt). “It felt like it was vibrating.”

Students were also issued special glasses so they could view a huge 8′ x 25′ banner of a 3-D photo of Mars taped to the wall behind the MPR stage.

Nearby in the school’s Science Lab, another JPL scientist, Nathaniel Alderson, introduced the students to the Deep Space Network and talked about the special challenges of communicating with spacecraft as they travel to the outskirts of our solar system.

“I’m explaining to them how the spacecraft, from so far away at the different planets, are able to communicate back to Earth without using much power, and how we’re able to, with very sensitive equipment, hear the signal and decode it so we can get all the pictures and data from the science instruments,” Alderson said.

That’s deep, indeed. “The students seem pretty engaged,” he said. “They’ve got lots of good questions. I’m a little surprised — I thought they’d be bored, but it seems like they’re having a good time.”

“It’s fun because you learn about all the different planets and maybe things that you don’t learn in your regular science (class),” said fifth-grader Tiffany Solis.

Emily Phan, in fourth grade, said she is very interested in science. “If I was older and decided that I wanted to go into space as an astronaut, then I would know more about the planets.”

Tyler Barton, also in fourth grade, wants to be a geologist, and likes science “because you get to learn about the planets,” he said. Maybe someday he’ll explore rocks from Mars.

Trent Cusack, another fourth-grader, said the favorite part of “JPL Day” for him was “being run over by Sammy. It felt like my little brother stepping on me.”

Cusack added that “it would be cool to go to Mars, but I also think it would be scary at the same time.” What does he think he’d find there? “Rocks, and maybe some ice,” he said.

“I liked learning how the Mars rovers work, and every bit of it is amazing,” said Jesse Kelley, also in fourth grade, when asked what he liked best about the day. He wants to be a marine biologist.

Did “JPL Day” inspire him to find out more about the rover and science in general? “Definitely,” Kelley said. “It’s just all very interesting. I love it.”

“JPL Day” dovetails perfectly with Santa Clarita Elementary’s effort to develop partnerships with various outreach departments at JPL to connect the students directly to scientists and engineers in various fields.

“Visits from JPL techs who make science come alive are investments in the next generation of problem-solvers and space travellers,” said Dianne Saunders, SCE’s principal, who is dedicated to highlighting science in the Saugus Union School District school’s curriculum across all grade levels.

“Santa Clarita’s working toward being a science-space school, so each year we do something different in the area of science,” Saunders said. “This year we had a huge environmental project. We’re fortunate and excited to have this partnership with JPL. As a member of the JPL team, Dennis Young began the program here last year. We worked with them, mostly with our third- and fifth-graders, I believe, and this year we have brought it to the whole school.

The once-dominant United States ranks fourth in the world in awarding undergraduate engineering degrees, according to a 2008 study from Engineering Trends.

Santa Clarita Elementary is among the growing list of schools redoubling efforts to turn out future scientists, engineers and mathematicians who will, educators hope, put the United States back on top as leaders in pioneering science, rather than continuing to concede that status to other countries that put greater emphasis on math and science education.

“We are preparing the next generation,” Saunders said. “There’s been a real push in education for what’s called STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so we’ve taken the science component of that. We don’t have enough money to do the technology component. We do have technology in all of our classrooms, but of course not as much as we’d like. But we are able to do a lot with science.

“We have a science lab at our school, the students have a lot of hands-on experiences,” she said. “(“JPL Day”) is a great opportunity for the students to interact, and as you can see, they’re enjoying everything they’re doing today. We had lunch with the scientists, where the students were able to sit down with them and ask some questions. ‘JPL Day’ gives (students) an opportunity to meet with real scientists and real engineers, so that they hopefully will be inspired to pursue a career in engineering or space.”

How effective is “JPL Day” in getting her students excited about such careers, really?

“We have some students who are very, very interested in the engineering scientific aspect,” Saunders said. “A lot of times, children don’t get those opportunities to explore those areas, especially in elementary schools — we focus on mostly reading and writing and mathematics. But science is so important in our community, out in the world and for our future, both environmentally — we hope we’ll be able to take good care of our planet — and in exploring other parts of space. So, it’s really important that we spark that at a young age. Hopefully when the students go on to junior high and high school, they’ll take those advanced science and math classes and move on into the engineering and scientific world.”

“I love that Santa Clarita Elementary opened in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy, a president who valued and pushed for space exploration,” Kathi Lund said. “Now, 50 years later, our school continues to appreciate the scientific contributions of JPL and NASA toward better understanding both our planet and our place in the universe.”

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