Infinity & Beyond: Galvanizing Students To Reach For Stars

Screenshot taken during a July 15 Google Meet with Rio Rancho Public Schools’ Native American Summer Academy guest speaker Aaron Yazzie. Yazzie shows students a selfie the Mars Rover took. Photo by Kelly Pearce 

Screenshot taken during July 15 Google Meet with Rio Rancho Public Schools’ Native American Summer Academy guest speaker Aaron Yazzie. Yazzie shows students pictures of Mars from the Mars Rover with a picture of himself on the Navajo Nation near Tuba City Ariz. Photo by Kelly Pearce 

By KELLY PEARCE
Teach Plus New Mexico

What inspired you to work at NASA? How long does it take to travel to Mars?

What if extraterrestrial life was on Mars before the water left? Could you survive on Mars with a spacesuit?

Students from the Rio Rancho Public Schools who attended the virtual, weeklong Native American Summer Academy earlier this month rocketed the Google Meet chat box with these and many other questions.

The students, ranging in age from kindergarten through high school, were riveted by the story of Aaron Yazzie, a Diné NASA mechanical engineer who is part of the Mars Perseverance Rover project. As a Jet Propulsion Laboratory leader, he helped to design the drill bits that are digging up Red Planet sand and rock, the material that will eventually make its way to Earth for analysis.

Aaron Yazzie’s session came just four days after Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic supersonic space plane zoomed across the New Mexican sky, hung out in outer space for several minutes, re-entered into our planet’s atmosphere, and touched down safely at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences.

“To all you kids out there — I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars,” Branson told CNN. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship … If we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”

Those who achieve greatness have the power to transform the lives of children, especially when our students see in the narratives someone who looks like them. I experienced this first hand with our Summer Academy this year.

When we reached out to Yazzie, he was eager to meet with our indigenous participants, in part, we learned later, because it was the summer programs that motivated him to take the path that he did; they opened doors he never knew were there for him.

The morning after Yazzie shared photos that the rover took, including a selfie and a video of the Integrity Helicopter embarking on its first Martian flight, our students wanted more. We shared the NASA three-minute video as the space vehicle gracefully touched down on Mars last February 18. Unlike for any textbook, lecture, or experiment, our students’ excitement to learn was out of this world, all because they suddenly saw complex science as human.

As Yazzie says, “As we reach out to our younger brothers and sisters to help them achieve their dreams, we also need to make sure there is a safe and inclusive place for them in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). A place for them to not only exist, but also to be the best they can be.”

As extraordinary science news inhabits social media, it’s a starry-filled moment for our children to imagine all of the possibilities and potential.  

Let’s open doors  — and portals  — that our students never even knew were there for them. Let’s make sure they look up and imagine.

Kelly Pearce, a Senior Policy Fellow with Teach Plus New Mexico, is a K-12 instructional coordinator in Rio Rancho Public Schools.

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