An auditorium full of more than 1,000 middle school students and their teachers took a "trip to Mars" and heard from an dynamic Air Force pilot on day four - Engineering and Science Exploration Day - of Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Sheri Klug, director of the Arizona State University (ASU) Mars Education Program, which is housed within the Mars Space Flight Facility in the Department of Geological Sciences, manned the stage alongside a number of Rio Grande Valley students to help her answer questions.
Klug took students on a journey to Mars thanks to a multimedia presentation employing computer animation of the Mars Rover landing, photos of the planet and other state of the art elements that brought the sights and sounds of Mars exploration to life.
"I remember the first landing on the moon when growing up and that was a big deal. In your lifetime we hope to see the first footprint on the first planet (Mars). I want to take you not 250,000 miles from earth but 50 million miles away. It will be the biggest thing humanity has ever tried to do and you can be a part of it," she said.
Klug, a certified teacher with K-12 science teaching experience, is also the formal education lead for the Mars Public Engagement Team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. and the education and public outreach representative on the Solar System Exploration Subcommittee for NASA headquarters.
In her presentation, Klug pointed out many of the dramatic differences between Mars and Earth as well as similarities. She also showed the audience her "Mars watch" that Rover mission members wore to live on Mars time, which is 37 minutes longer than the 24 hour day on Earth. She also interactively discussed the differences in traveling to Mars rather than the moon.
"Traveling to the moon is a three-day trip but traveling to Mars is a three-year trip. How many of your parents would let you go for three years and how many students would teachers like to send for three years?" she asked.
Klug said it took 200 scientists and engineers on earth to send commands to the Rover each day and also described some of the problems encountered, discoveries they have made and future Mars exploration missions planned.
"When it comes to space we know so very little. You guys are going to be the ones that give us discoveries and figure out the things my generation never dreamed they could see or do," she said.
The ASU Mars Education Program is the facilitator of the Mars Student Imaging Project, which Klug said allows fifth grade through community college students from across the United States the opportunity to participate in actual Mars research using a camera currently orbiting Mars.
"You will have the chance to do the same thing that our Ph.D. scientists from around the world get to also do but you get to do it as fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth graders," she said.
Before allowing the students to ask questions Klug advised the students to start making plans in middle school that will impact and open doors of opportunities in the future and not let others discourage them from pursuing their interest in science.
"There are a lot of people who will say it is not cool with whatever your dream may be but that is your choice. You shouldn't let other people make that choice for you," she said.
Boeing representatives entertained students with action-packed videos demonstrating each of the panelist's careers and moderator Art Rosales, director of Special Programs at Boeing, informed students of the company's desire to hire Hispanics.
Amelia Escojido, an engineer and scientist for Boeing, reminded students about financial opportunities for college and also told them that a higher education will take them further than they can see.
Also participating in the Boeing panel was Veronica Balderamas, a UTPA engineering student, who told students about her recent summer internship at the company, which has hired approximately 35 UTPA interns over the last 10 years.
"When they say Boeing wants you, they mean it," Balderamas said. "They do everything in their power to get you to work for them. The internship was an amazing experience for me."
Other representatives from Boeing included Alberto Arteaga, an XM Radio program team member and Platform Integrated Product Team (IPT) Lead; Keyla V. Anglada-Muniz, a Boeing mechanical engineer; and Jeffrey J. Robles from Boeing-NASA Systems.
UTPA student and University Scholar Erin Sepúlveda-Cué, a junior majoring in mathematics, shared the story of his journey and emigration from Mexico to the United States three years ago with the audience.
While in high school in Mexico he decided to move to the United States by himself because of the opportunities he hoped a life here would provide.
Hoping to one day become a pilot, he learned English, studied hard and worked as a waiter to pay for his rent and living expenses while attending Edinburg High School.
"I didn't know much about math and science, but I worked hard," Sepúlveda-Cué said. "I knew math and science were going to take me to my dreams."
After graduating high school one year early with 31 college credits, he enrolled at UTPA in summer 2003 and plans to graduate in December 2005, finishing college in two and a half years.
His dream of becoming a pilot was reinforced by Lt. Col. Edward Cabrera, a keynote speaker and third-time HESTEC presenter, when Sepúlveda-Cué was able to thank him for his participation in the event, which raises money for scholarship recipients like himself.
"It was an awesome experience to meet him," Sepúlveda-Cué said. "He's an awesome guy and answered every question I asked him about his job and the life of a pilot."
Cabrera's address focused on the doors that opened for him throughout his life and career path as a pilot.
Cabrera was the first student from his high school to be accepted to the Air Force Academy, and he remembers when a teacher told him "by going to the academy, many doors will open for you."
The doors did open for him, most recently one which allowed him to serve as the operations officer for the Joint Strike Fighter Concept Demonstration, and assume the position of F/A-22 flight test squadron commander at Edwards Air Force Base from 2001-2003. Cabrera wanted students to know a college education is the key to the doors they come across in life.
"I think it's important for the kids to see someone who looks like them, with a similar background," Cabrera said. "I think I am lucky to have parents and teachers who stressed education."
Cabrera's future plans include going to Baghdad, Iraq to assist at an aviation site and help Iraq in its efforts to become a self-governing country, he said.
Patricia Garcia, an eighth grade teacher who accompanied 60 pre-AP math students from Vernon Middle School in Harlingen, said the pilot (Cabrera) was very interesting and seemed to trigger students' interest in the field.
"I think definitely these presentations will have an impact on some of the kids," she said.
Israel Nogueira, one of Garcia's students, said he liked hearing about the Mars Rover. "I am interested in that kind of career," he said.
Engineering and Space Exploration Day attendees also heard from two employees from Ford Motor Company that are Valley natives - Aaron Acuña, a Ford electrical engineer from Edinburg who graduated from UTPA with a degree in electrical engineering and Marisela Reyes, a Ford design and release engineer, born in McAllen and raised in Mission, who received her bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in industrial and operations engineering and her master's in engineering with a focus in manufacturing from Purdue University.
Both engineers, who have participated in several of the venues during HESTEC, presented a video showing the new Ford GT that made an appearance on campus this week with its designer Camilo Pardo, one of Ford's chief designers in its Living Legend Studios, and another video showing the revitalization of Ford's 80-year-old Rouge Assembly facility in Dearborn, Mich.
The final presenter of the day, Lt. Mark A. Venzor, field diversity admissions counselor with the United States Naval Academy, informed the crowd via video about the Naval Academy and its mission of preparing leaders. He cited former President Jimmy Carter, basketball player Dave Robinson and Senator John McCain as Naval Academy graduates. He said the Academy teaches you to make good decisions and the importance of being academically prepared. He ended the day with an important message.
"My main message today is that you need to go to college," he said, to resounding applause.