September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 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.

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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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. 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.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.