NASA’s ExMASS Program:
Inspiration in a Pre-College Research Experience

Note from the Editors:  This story is the first of a series of articles that will focus on the success of various NASA-funded student programs in planetary science. This article features Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students (ExMASS), a program for secondary students that provides participants with the chance to conduct authentic research under the expert guidance of a professional scientist. — Paul Schenk and Renée Dotson

For more than a decade, the Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) has implemented a research program for secondary students across the United States. Today, this program is known as Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students (ExMASS). The essence of the program is to provide secondary students with an opportunity to conduct authentic, inquiry-based research with the guidance of a planetary scientist. Thus far, approximately 600 students in 30 states (see map below) have participated in the program. More than 30 planetary scientists have worked with those students, some providing advice for multiple years. The program was originally funded by the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI) as a component to the LPI- and JSC-led Center for Lunar Science and Exploration. Since 2014, ExMASS has been funded by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

ExMASS School and Advisor LocationsWhy provide such a program for secondary students? For decades, national science education reports and science education researchers have called for more student opportunities to participate in authentic, inquiry-based research experiences. (In this context, “authentic” student research occurs when they undertake the same, and multiple, processes as professional scientists during an investigation. “Inquiry-based” student research occurs when students pursue a research question/topic that is of interest to them. While a student investigation may be authentic, it is not necessarily inquiry-based, and vice versa.) Despite those recommendations, there has been a dearth of such experiences available.

The goals of the ExMASS program are to (1) provide an opportunity for secondary students to engage in multiple practices of science, (2) foster positive student attitudes toward science, and (3) enhance student lunar and asteroid science content knowledge. With these goals as a framework, the research programs introduce students to the process of science and critical analysis. It is always exciting to see the program develop talent that may someday support the NASA workforce and academic community. However, it is equally important to provide positive scientific experiences for those who serve society in other roles. Developing an appreciation for, and remaining excited about, science is a great outcome for most participants. Indeed, learning to distinguish between a priori beliefs, speculation, and evidence-based findings will benefit students throughout their lives, regardless of the occupational path they choose.

Because secondary students are rarely exposed to basic lunar or asteroid science in the classroom, they enter the program with knowledge gaps. Those gaps are addressed during the first six weeks of each program year, when students complete two guided inquiry activities, “Moon 101” and “Asteroid 101,” which consist of readings on relevant topics (e.g., impact cratering, volcanism, tectonism, and meteorites). Upon completion of the readings, students are asked to put that newfound knowledge to work by characterizing lunar and asteroid surface features visible in preselected images. Evaluation data shows that these activities successfully fill the knowledge gaps.

Lunar locations studied in CLSE high school research projectsAfter completing the “101” activities, teams of students dive into research. With assistance from their advisor, students identify a lunar (see map of locations on the Moon studied by students) or asteroid research topic to investigate and create a research plan. Near the end of the school year, teams write abstracts and create conference-style posters to communicate the results of their research. Electronic versions of the posters are scored by a panel of judges from the planetary science community. The top four scoring teams present their research via webinar to the panel, and from these presentations, one team is selected to travel to the annual NASA Exploration Science Forum, present their paper in person, and meet with scientists.

Annual evaluation data from surveys show that the program consistently meets its goals:

  • Students utilize multiple processes of science (as defined by the Next Generation Science Standards) during their investigations
  • There are statistically significant increases (see Acta Astronautica, 152, pp. 1–9) in students’ attitudes toward science [the ExMASS attitudes toward science survey measures the extent to which students believe science is valuable regardless of whether they pursue science themselves (interest)]
  • Student knowledge specific to lunar and asteroid science also increases

The program’s success is also evident in some of its products (see the table below), which include a peer-reviewed journal article and presentations to a state legislature interested in STEM education.

Applications for the 2022–2023 ExMASS are currently being accepted. If you are interested in advising a team next year, or would like more information, please contact Andy Shaner, or visit the ExMASS website. The success of the ExMASS program is due to the outstanding efforts of students. The success is also due to the dedication of the advisors. Advisors participate on a volunteer basis, contributing generously of their time to a student team. When asked why they participate, most respond by stating they simply want to give back and help the next generation. For this, the ExMASS program is incredibly grateful.

— Andy Shaner and David Kring, Lunar and Planetary Institute