Students become JPL teachers

LA Canada

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is home to some of the most innovative thinkers. This was no exception Friday, when a group of students from Paradise Canyon Elementary School lectured JPL scientists on how to colonize Mars.

The team comprises four fifth-graders: Loren Barton, Ankur Jain, Charlie Lea and Anirudh Tammewar, and one third-grader, John Hickman. All of them are members of the science club at Paradise Canyon.

The students gave their presentation surrounded by the 1977 Voyager and 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in the von Karman Auditorium.

Their presentation was made possible by the Imagine Mars Project, a program that started in 1999 and pairs students with scientists, engineers and civil leaders as they are given the task of creating a futuristic Mars community for 100 people, a mission this group had been working on since October.

Pamela Raymer-Lea, mother of Charlie Lea, is the leader and teacher of the Imagine Mars at Paradise Canyon.

"Our five young men are very serious scientists, and they wanted to do hard science, preferably inventing and researching things that would help them meet the challenges of living on Mars," Raymer-Lea said. "While the students are working with hard science, they are also allowed to use anything within the realm of believable science that might be used in the next 50 years."

Not every group gets to present their community at JPL, and Jain was shocked with the news that his club had been invited.

"I was really excited when I heard," Jain said. "I was just thinking, 'Wow, this is such a big thing.'"

Stephenie Lievense is one of the Imagine Mars JPL project leaders and has worked with a number of groups but found something unique with this group.

"What I liked most about this group was that they dug really deep into the challenges that a Mars environment would present to humans," Lievense said. "They gave more detailed answers and did more research than some of the other groups did."

Each member of the group researched and prepared for a specific part of the journey to Mars. Lea and Hickman designed the living habitat for the community, including access to air, heat and water. Jain determined how the community would get food and medicine while on Mars. Barton developed communications and space suits, while Tammewar worked on how they would retrieve water from the Martian poles and protect themselves from radiation.

"This was really fun and interesting," Tammewar said. "I had a lot of fun drawing plans, pretending and coming up with ideas on how to have a better community and life."

Jain agreed, saying he liked that it was student-run, allowing them to develop questions and answer them on their own.

A number of JPL scientists worked along with the students as they developed a livable community on Mars. Matt Van Kirk, who works on Mars exploration rovers at JPL, said he was impressed by the group's initiative.

"The times I went to visit their science club were usually on Friday afternoons after school, and once was right before their Thanksgiving break. These guys are so committed to doing this work and are extremely interested in it," Van Kirk said. "I thought that was outstanding. It made it really easy for me to want to get involved."

Many of the students want to work in the sciences, which is something Raymer-Lea wanted to encourage in her students.

"Part of what I wanted out of this was for the kids to see JPL and NASA scientists as human beings," Raymer-Lea said. "The scientists also shared how they got to where they are as scientists so the kids could see this is something attainable for them too."

Tammewar is deciding between becoming a paleontologist or artist; Jain wants to be a chemical engineer or astrophysicist; Hickman is considering becoming an engineer or architect; Barton would like to work at JPL designing rockets or robots; and Lea has it narrowed down to one of two career paths.

"I am interested in the universe and the search for life," Lea said. "I am either going to be a businessman or a scientist and work for JPL."

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