Wheaton grad steers students through NASA testing facility
5th-graders learn about Mars, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
WHEATON -- Wheaton fifth-graders demonstrated their knowledge of Mars by conducting a one-hour Skype session with a district alumna who works for the NASA Curiosity Rover team.
"We have been spending a lot of time sending robots and orbiters to Mars to study the planet," said Erisa Hines, who graduated from Wheaton High School in 1998. "So, when we send people, we have a good chance of making the right decision about what they need and what we can do to help them be safe and survive."
On Nov. 21, she guided the 26 students across the "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., allowing them to experience the sights and sounds of the testing facility.
"We tried to mimic what Mars looks like," Hines said. "We have different shapes and colors of rocks, different slopes. So, if we want to practice driving up slopes, the rover has a lot of abilities to understand what's around it."
She showed the students two rovers housed at the laboratory. One of the rovers was called Scarecrow.
"We call it Scarecrow because it is a rover without a brain," Hines said. "So, this rover doesn't have a computer on it. It's really so that we can drive it around and understand how it works from a mobility perspective."
The 3-meter long, six-wheel Curiosity Rover is on Mars. Each wheel has holes that are dots or dashes, which spell out "JPL" in Morse code, Hines said. Curiosity uses the dots and dashes as navigational markers through its camera.
Jeff Freeland, fifth-grade teacher at Wheaton, said his students conducted research when answering five questions on building a community on Mars. Two-student teams developed presentations using an iPad to answer such questions as how they would provide food and water, how they would protect the inhabitants from the Mars' climate and where they would build their community and why.
Grant Bradford and Coy Harper gave their presentation to Hines, followed by Zane Johnson and Monica Hinojosa.
They would build their community at the equator because the average temperature ranges from 70 to 80 Fahrenheit, Hinojosa said. The average temperature at the poles is negative 65 Fahrenheit.
They could make bricks for their houses out of materials on Mars, Johnson said.
"What really surprised me was because it has some similarities to Earth, scientists can figure out ways to get to Mars and try to learn more about it," he said.
When NASA decides to take humans to Mars, Hines said she heard it could take one to two years for them to reach the red planet.
"If you imagine all of you guys being stuck in a cement building for two years, you can imagine there might be a lot of challenges with that in terms of just people getting along together, working together," she said. "How do you kind of keep everyone happy and sane? These are people's lives. You guys have all of these things that you want to do, places you want to go. If someone signs up to go to Mars, you want to sign up to go to Mars knowing that there is something to be lived for.
"You might think it's enough to go explore and learning new things. If you are living there, you are also eating, preparing meals, and you are showering and you are sleeping. And so, there's this very real lifestyle about it that we have to think about."
Hines graduated from the University of Miami in Florida with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a minor in mathematics. She then earned master's degrees in aeronautics and astronautics and technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In May 2013, Hines came to Wheaton High School to share her experiences about working for NASA and being part of the team that landed Curiosity on Mars in 2012.
The district's goal is to integrate technology into classroom instruction, said Curt White, technology integration specialist and first-grade teacher at Wheaton Elementary School. White was responsible for planning the Skype session between Freeland's class and Hines.
"We're wanting our students to develop those 21st century learning skills, where they are prepared when they walk out of our door for what's out there," White said.