Mars, the fourth planet from the sun, was the highlight of The University of Texas-Pan American's Hispanic Engineering, Science, and Technology (HESTEC) Week during Student Exploration Day Sept. 28.
HESTEC Student Exploration Day offers middle school students the opportunity to investigate space and science exploration with presentations, hands-on activities and exhibits by NASA, Boeing, Smithsonian and Lockheed Martin.
The Red Planet, as it is commonly known, was the subject of the 3,000-square-foot traveling educational exhibit brought to the UTPA campus by NASA. The exhibit, which features numerous panels and models, will be open to the public Saturday, Sept. 30 during HESTEC Community Day at the Health and Physical Education II Building. In addition, the Saturday exhibit will offer the public a chance to view an actual Mars meteorite.
"We have high regard for what HESTEC means to the students and the community here and we really wanted to support their efforts of science, technology, engineering and math, and get these kids inspired," Valderrama Graff said. "As far as NASA goes these students are our next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts, so we want to try and inspire them now so they will go on to a college education."
Students were brought into the exhibit in rotations to allow them time to participate in hands-on activities with NASA scientists, engineers, and geochemists who served as facilitators of the activities, which included looking at maps and images taken of Mars to collecting rock samples.
"The kids are really engaged in the activities, the facilitators are getting a chance to talk one on one with these students. Hopefully these students can kind of see themselves in their positions later on in life," she said.
Sophia Marron, a student at Charles Stillman Middle School at Brownsville ISD, said she enjoyed the hands-on activities with the top-notch NASA representatives. Marron said the exhibit opened her eyes to the importance of studying Mars. Before attending the exhibit and activities, Marron said she was considering a degree in law, but now thinks she will consider maybe pursuing a science degree.
"I think it is really cool that they are letting us see this exhibit and brought us here for the experience. I don't think I would have had the opportunity to see it if it wasn't here," Marron said.
Among the NASA items featured in the exhibit include a full-size model of the Phoenix Mars Lander, which will be launched in August 2007. The Phoenix, named after the mythological bird, will be NASA's first exploration of a potential modern habitat on Mars that will allow a renewed search for carbon-bearing compounds according to NASA facts. Also being exhibited is the Mars Global Surveyor, which was the first in a series of spacecrafts designed to explore the planet. The Mars Global Surveyor studies the entire Mars surface, atmosphere and interior.
When asked if there is life on Mars, Joe Guinn, JPL mission manager who heads the team that will remotely operate the Phoenix Mars Lander when it arrives on the Red Planet in May 2008, said, "We hope to find that."
Guinn, a Texas native with a long family history in the Rio Grande Valley, said he was glad to share the Phoenix model with the students and give a glimpse of what the $380 million spacecraft not only looked like but also explain what it will do.
"This is the excitement of discovering what is really on Mars ... We will actually get down to the surface and find if there is really water out there and if there is water then there is a good chance that we can actually find some form of life. It's a theme that NASA has tried to establish," Guinn said.
Guinn, who facilitated one of the student activities, said the solar-powered Phoenix will be sent on a one-way trip for three months and will be able to dig deep into the soil to detect hydrogen, which may mean water in its frozen form.
Heading the Mars Global Surveyor activity and display was Keith Steinhurst, JPL Solar System investigator who works for the state of Texas. Steinhurst assisted students with an activity that looked at images of the planet's surface. He said all activities provided by NASA were set to objectives in the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which included scientific processes, collecting data, organizing and analyzing, communicating conclusions, and drawing inferences based on data.
"I hope they walk away with the idea that these robotic missions give valid scientific data that they can use to make interpretations of what is happening on that planet's surface and these are the same kinds of images we take even of earth with the orbiters. The same kind of process and analyses that works for this also works here," he said.
Steinhurst said Mars is the planet most identical to Earth in the solar system and it has many features that will assist scientists in understanding the similar changes happening on Earth.
David Gaytan, GEAR UP Family and Community Liaison for Charles Stillman Middle School, said today's exhibit and activities sparked a real interest in the students. He said before they arrived to the UTPA campus the students were excited about the lucky chance to experience what HESTEC and NASA had to offer.
"I think through these hands-on activities is how they will ultimately learn. Today also showed them that if they want to pursue a career like this, they need a college degree," Gaytan said.
For Samantha Martinez, a student at Stillman Middle School, the day was special because she met NASA representatives and learned that someday life may be found on Mars.
"Today we had an opportunity to learn a lot about Mars, science and the programs. I am very grateful because it really made me interested in science and I felt like they (NASA) are teaching us what they do so that we can learn, " Martinez said.
Following their participation at the NASA exhibition, students were also able to hear from Sulema Castro, education and outreach coordinator for the Amazonia Science Gallery at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, who spoke to Rio Grande Valley students about mapmaking and how decisions people make affect the environment.
"Maps determine how much we have to incorporate into our research. Creating maps requires technology, geography, science, biology, and math skills." Castro said.
Castro informed students about the different types of maps and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a software program that uses satellites to help create maps.
"For anyone who likes working with computers, working with GIS is a great career because it is brand new and you can be very successful doing it," she said.
The students worked on an activity that mapped how a dam can alter and sometimes be destructive to the environment around it. As an example, Castro described how the sunken town of Guerrero Viejo was flooded by the construction of Falcon Dam and the people were forced to move.
"Sometimes animals are forced to move out of their natural habitat and have nowhere to go," she said.
Castro went on to describe how there are approximately 100 endangered ocelots living in South Texas. The ocelots are tracked by wearing radial collars that send signals to satellites enabling their locations to be mapped.
Darlene Elizondo from Liberty Middle School in Pharr, Texas never thought learning about maps could be so interesting.
"I love animals, especially animals like tigers and anything exotic. I was excited to hear that we have ocelots here in South Texas, but it's sad to know that they are endangered," Elizondo said.
Sanchez has more than 30 years of aerospace experience with Lockheed Martin. He has a degree in manufacturing engineering from UCLA and has earned his profession designations in manufacturing engineering planning and system engineering from the ADP (Advanced Development Programs) in Palmdale, Calif., informally known as the "Skunk Works®," which some refer to as the "brain trust" of Lockheed Martin.
Skunk Works® has been responsible for a number of top secret, revolutionary aircraft, including the F-117, the world's first operational aircraft completely designed around stealth technology, meaning it is invisible to radar. With experience on 18 different aircraft while at Lockheed Martin, Sanchez is currently assigned to the F-117 Nighthawk System Engineering Requirements and Integration Product.
A second generation American born in Los Angeles, Sanchez said as a child he always was fascinated with anything that flew, including birds, butterflies and crickets and had a desire to solve problems, which led him to engineering, a career in which he has excelled. Last year Sanchez was selected as the recipient of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation (HENAAC) Engineer of the Year - Community Service Award.
He stressed to the students the importance of pursuing higher education and developing leadership skills.
"Leadership is what makes a difference when you get out in the world, he said but noted, "There is a myth that leaders are born. It's not true. Leadership is learned."
Sanchez shared his four qualities of a great leader - character, conviction, competency and caring. He added that you must also lead by example and learn to be a team player, particularly in engineering.
Before answering questions from a long line of excited students, Sanchez showed a video of Lockheed Martin's recently revealed Polecat, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used for both attack and reconnaissance missions, which reflects a new generation of robotic aircraft. He also showed and described aircraft vehicles that morphed and one that could be launched from a submarine while underwater.
"Your generation will be nano engineers," he said, beyond BC engineers (before computers) and AC engineers (after computers). "You will be able to put an engine in the tip of a hypodermic needle."
Sanchez responded to questions ranging from what salary he makes to what are the largest and smallest planes his company has built. His response to a question about the fastest plane built drew an audible sigh of awe from the students when Sanchez described the Falcon, a plane that travels at Mach 9 speed (nine times the speed of light) enabling a person to travel from Los Angeles to McAllen in five minutes.
Other speakers during Student Exploration Day were Art Rosales, director of Program Services for Boeing Commercial and Civil Programs at Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems; Dr. Arturo A. Fuentes, UTPA assistant professor in mechanical engineering and adviser of the University's Mini Baja Project; and UTPA Mini Baja team members Roy Villanueva (team leader), Michael A. Acosta, Angel Bermea, and Gerardo Morales - all University undergraduate or graduate students.