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Science Teachers Are 'STAR' Interns at JPL

Science Teachers Are 'STAR' Interns at JPL California STAR students and the supporting staff. JPL had nine STAR students over the summer. Image credit: CESaME

September 8, 2010

by Susan Gendreau

Gendreau is a 2009 JPL STAR intern and teaches chemistry at South Pasadena High School, grades 9 through 12, in South Pasadena, Calif. She also writes the Top Ten Hits of Mars for the Mars Program Office website.

This summer NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory welcomed nine aspiring science teachers as interns, thanks to the Science Teacher and Researcher program (STAR).   Most science teachers have never been researchers.  The STAR program exists to help new teachers connect the "teaching of science" with the "doing of science." This is accomplished by providing research opportunities at world-class laboratories around the United States. STAR is a California State University program coordinated by the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (CESaME) at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

At JPL, the interns' projects were as varied as their backgrounds.  Kristina Goltz has a degree in chemistry and a Master of Science in forensic science. "The students love that I have a Masters in forensic science," chuckled Goltz.  She spent the summer as an astrobiologist, studying how deep into a rock ultraviolet light can penetrate.  Her research will help determine how deep under the surface potential Martian life might have to be to escape surface radiation on Mars.  "I didn't know research was so creative and that researchers encourage [initiative].  Once I went down to Caltech for a routine sample pickup and wound up getting them to loan us a rock saw," she laughed.  "My mentor was really pleased."

Jamie Vargas has a Master of Science in physics.  This summer he worked to determine the effects of changes in voltage and current on a comb device, which allows a single laser to emit several frequencies at once.  The comb is part of a design that will enable a stronger signal and more precise frequencies when doing gas spectroscopy, which will help detect smaller amounts of atmospheric trace gases. 

Doing research was a learning experience in many ways.  "I learned about collaboration, and how much scientists depend on interdisciplinary skills," said Vargas.  Now his students will collaborate on class projects to learn those skills as well.
Joe Weichman, who plans to teach math and astronomy, spent the summer in the Optical Communications Group.  Though his project was hindered by quality control issues with the vendor, he persevered.  "I thought I understood all the steps involved from an idea to a product," said Weichman.  "With this project, I'm learning there's more steps."  

Time pressure and the pace challenged everyone.  "You need the first few weeks to figure out what you're doing and everyone around you is very busy, so you have to push for what you need," explained Vargas.  But the interns agreed that their JPL colleagues were more approachable and had more diverse backgrounds than they expected.

How will doing research affect the fellows' teaching?  "I have a science degree, but I don't know that I'd have called myself a scientist before," said Jessica Potter, whose degree is in plant ecology.  The experience has made their subjects more alive to them, the teachers say, giving science a relevance they mean to communicate to their students.  An added benefit: Credibility.  "Because I've worked as a scientist, the students ask me questions about getting a science job," said Vargas.  "And they respect a teacher who's worked for NASA."

The STAR program provides its fellows with housing reimbursement, travel to STAR conferences, and a weekly stipend.  For more information visit: .

To learn more about all internships at JPL, go to .