September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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.

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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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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at 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.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. 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.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” 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.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. 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.