Lunar and Planetary Institute
Lunar and Planetary Institute



High School Students Help Explore Mars Through Innovative Program

April 24, 2008
Source:  Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University

This image, taken by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, shows the infrared brightness of the central peak and wall of a crater in Tyrrhena Terra, in Mars' southern highlands. High school students participating in NASA’s Mars Exploration Science Data Teams project chose this site for a more detailed observation after studying images that showed outcrops of clay-like minerals, which indicate the past presence of water.While most kids can only read about Mars exploration, four groups of high school students from around the country are getting the chance to plan observations of the Red Planet and join the science team analyzing data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission.

The students are participating in a project called the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams (MESDT), which is run by Arizona State University as a key educational component of NASA’s Mars Public Engagement Program. They are using real data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) flying onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and managed by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The primary mission of CRISM is to search for mineral traces of ancient water as it images the planet in up to 544 wavelengths of light.

The student teams are from:

• Durham Academy and nearby public schools in Durham, North Carolina
• John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, New York
• Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri
• Livonia Central School in Livonia, New York

“Two goals of MESDT are to provide high school students the opportunity to perform authentic science and to take student-directed research to the next level, and they’ve certainly done that,” says MESDT project leader Brian Grigsby of Arizona State University's Mars Education Program. “It’s really fascinating to see how the teams vary in their approaches because they are coming from different technical situations, yet all are doing a fantastic job.”

The students first analyzed data taken by CRISM in its low-resolution, mapping mode, focusing on a region of ancient rocks in Mars’ southern highlands. They identified various mineral deposits and developed hypotheses to explain how the deposits might have formed. The students then planned targeted observations by CRISM, with ten times the spatial resolution of the initial images. The first two student-selected observations were taken, downloaded, and processed in February, and the teams are working with their mentors to analyze the results. Two additional sites have been identified and added to CRISM’s observing schedule.

Each team has an adult advisor from their school and a mentor from the CRISM science team. The students use the same software used by CRISM researchers, a program called ACT-REACT, which was customized specifically for the mission by Applied Coherent Technology Inc., in Herndon, Virginia.

 “We’ve been really impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and ability to master complex concepts and software,” says Kim Seelos, a member of the CRISM science team at APL and mentor to one of the teams. “Working with us allows them to see how the scientific process works, while they also get a chance to make real contributions to an important NASA mission.”

Some team members even got the chance to show off their work in a poster session at the 39th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March. “The students are doing authentic work and making valid discoveries,” says Dawn Turney, of APL’s space education and outreach program. “It was therefore an important part of the experience that they had the chance to participate in a conference and experience that aspect of a scientist’s work.”

The MESDT curriculum is aligned with the National Science Education Standards and was designed to fit within existing science curriculum, teaching required objectives and standards using real-world science rather than worksheets or simulations. The program plans to expand beyond the four pilot schools for the 2008–2009 school year.

For more information, visit:

Mars Exploration Student Data Teams

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

CRISM:  Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars



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Last updated April 24, 2008