May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Middle School Students Are Part of NASA Mars Missions

Posted: Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

by Dennis Mitchell

What would you think if a group of 7th grade students had the ability to direct a multi-million dollar spacecraft and its camera at the surface of Mars and acquire an image that helps them and NASA learn more about the planet? What would you think about a group of 8th grade students that could direct the astronauts aboard the International Space Station to take images anywhere on Earth to help them with a science research project? What if those same students could meet with scientists and, in real time, ask them questions that help with their research? Or set up an online Wiki that shows their research project and allows them to post questions directly to NASA scientists and educators? What if those same students are so inspired by their research projects that they don’t meet as a class or receive any grades for their work, rather, they give up time before school, after school, lunch recess, and vacation time to complete their research projects and present their findings “live” over the internet and in person to a panel of NASA scientists? For the last nine years my students have been doing this from the comfort of their classroom on iPads, Chrome Books, or laptop computers through Distance Learning! My name is Dennis Mitchell and I am a 7th grade math, science, and technology teacher at Evergreen Middle School near Cottonwood, California. I have taught for 36 years in the Evergreen Union School District and my students have acquired over 40 images of Mars and numerous images of Earth! You might think it would cost a million dollars to do this kind of research with kids. No, these are part of two free programs offered by NASA. Any teacher and their students can participate in these programs. All they need is one computer (or more), Internet access, an eager group of students in fifth grade through college, and an interest to help the scientific community learn a little more about world we live on and beyond.

The first of these projects is offered by NASA at the Mars Education at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. My students have been participating in this free NASA program for nine years. As the Mars Student Imaging Project website states;

The Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) is a nationally recognized award winning authentic inquiry-based learning and student-centered education project. Students learn how science works by engaging in science research using data from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars. Students understand how science really works by actually being a scientist.The Mars Student Imaging Project (MSIP) is an immersive and transformational way for students in grades 5 through early college to engage in scientific process and practices through authentic research experiences. MSIP enhances the teaching of traditional courses, such as physical science, Earth science, chemistry, and biology. MSIP also incorporates 21st Century Skills to help students be ready for the STEM workforce.”

Basically, the students create a research project studying Mars and use the Mars Odyssey orbiter and the THEMIS camera aboard to acquire an image of Mars to help with their research. Student’s study archived THEMIS images to help with their research project. It is a wonderful project that is highly engaging for the students. All you need are a few computers connected to the internet and your students can become NASA scientists!

The other program is called Expedition Earth and Beyond and is offered through ARES (Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate) from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The ARES Mission Statement is

To connect educators with the science and scientists of astromaterials research and exploration science with the shared vision to inform and inspire learners.”

That is certainly the case with the program I use as a way for my teams to get their “feet wet” and learn how to interpret satellite images and develop a scientific research project. The program I use is called “Expedition Earth and Beyond” and has easy to follow curriculum using Earth satellite images. The students can design a simple Earth-based research project and access thousands of images taken by astronauts of Earth. They can also request an image and have the astronauts aboard the International Space Station take the image for them to help support their research. My students have been using this program as an introduction to scientific research the last four years and have had the astronauts aboard the ISS take several images of Earth for their project. One of the coolest components of this program are the Distance Learning opportunities where the students actually interface “live” with NASA scientists via a WebEx internet connection. The students can also create a WIKI page and display the components of their research project. NASA scientists and educators communicate with the students via the WIKI and answer questions in real time! Visit the Homepage for Expedition Earth and Beyond at for more information. My students love this program!

One of my former students was so inspired by his experience on one of my student-led NASA teams that he pursued a technology career through high school. After graduating from high school came back to the Evergreen Union School District to work as an assistant in our technology center. Last month he was hired as the head of technology at a prestigious K-8 school in San Francisco! Many of my former students that participated in one or both of these programs have gone on to pursue science and engineering degrees in college. If you have an interest in science and technology and would like to involve your students in real science research with NASA, I highly recommend participating in one of these free and highly motivating programs offered by NASA.

Dennis Mitchell is a 7th grade math, science, and technology teacher at Evergreen Middle School near Cottonwood, CA and a member of CSTA.

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy:

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.