Distance Learning Tools Allow California Space Grant to Share Mars Science Laboratory with Underrepresented Youth at Rural High School

In addition to presenting a dynamic seminar at UC San Diego’s new Structural and Materials Engineering Presentation Lab on November 2, Brian Schratz of NASA/JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory also conducted a distance learning activity with a group of underrepresented high school students in rural San Diego County. Mountain Empire High School science teacher Roger Wynn and San Diego State University geologist Norrie Robbins led the efforts on the remote end, while the California Space Grant team assisted Brian at the UC San Diego site. Prior to connecting with the students via Skype, Mr. Wynn introduced the class to Mars via reading assignment while Dr. Robbins conducted a hands-on activity with the students.

Examining Cyanobacteria to Better Understand Early Life on Earth and the Need for Oxygen on Mars

Specifically, earlier in the week, Dr. Robbins (who is known as “Doc” on local Indian reservations) worked with a group of Campo Native American youth to collect cyanobacteria samples from the reservation for the hands-on activity at the high school. Also known as blue green algae, the cyanobacteria generate oxygen and are well known as being among the earliest forms of life on Earth. Doc helped the Native American youth collect the cyanobacteria and then they placed it into an inverted funnel, leading to a tube, so that the gas emitted from the algae could be collected and examined by the high school students.

Prior to talking with Brian from the Mars Science Laboratory, the students were able to think about these early life forms on Earth that produce oxygen. “Can we put this stuff on Mars so that we could have some oxygen up there?” one of them asked while another posited “What if the Curiosity finds algae like this on Mars? I mean, anything is possible.”

In addition to examining the cyanobacteria, the students were also provided with soil samples from a variety of places – including Wyoming, Nebraska, Kentucky, and Alabama.

The students dried out the samples to remove moisture before measuring the pH and then wrote up results in lab books.

Learning about Curiosity’s Landing on Mars and Samples Being Collected by Scientists

Following the hands-on activities with Mr. Wynn and Doc, the students talked with Brian Schratz about his work with the Mars Science Laboratory as well as his involvement with an Earth Science Mission at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. An archived recording of the distance learning activity is available at http://youtu.be/XhGzPK36jGU. After the Skype session, Mr. Wynn administered a survey to the 23 Earth Science students that participated in the real-time distance learning activity and results are as follows:

  • 91% agreed that the information was presented effectively by the presenter.
  • 83% agreed that they learned a lot from the students and researchers.
  • 74% agreed that the hands-on activities were fun.


An additional two Earth Science classes  (48 students) watched the recorded version of the Skype session and they were also surveyed. Results are as follows:

  • 94% agreed that the information was presented effectively by the presenter.
  • 78% agreed that they learned a lot from the students and researchers.
  • 77% agreed that the hands-on activities were fun.

Earlier this Fall, the California Space Grant team worked with the Mountain Empire High School District on a physics distance learning activity; this is described at the following URL: http://casgc.ucsd.edu/?p=3122.

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