A Los Angeles math teacher gets students engaged with connections to science and exploring the human side of math, such as how leaders inspire change in their communities.
Katherine Risbrough has been teaching high school math for almost 10 years. She began her teaching career in the Hickory Hill community of Memphis, Tennessee, where she taught everything from Algebra 1 to Calculus and served as a math coach for the district. Five years ago, she came to Los Angeles to teach Integrated Math and Calculus at Synergy Quantum Academy High School.
Outside of math, Ms. Risbrough is also a superfan of college football and never misses a game at her alma mater, the University of Southern California. Her fandom for making the game is rivaled only by her love of Harry Potter, having been to every midnight book and movie release.
I caught up with Ms. Risbrough to find out how she gets students excited about math, and I learned about a new strategy she used this past year: bridging math and science by teaming up with the AP Physics teacher. Her cross-discipline curriculum focused on helping students make connections between subjects and got them engaged as they returned from more than a year of remote learning.
Math can be intimidating for students and it can be difficult to keep them engaged. How do you get your students excited about math?
Sometimes it's easier said than done, but math needs to be as hands-on and discussion-based as possible. We use a lot of the calc-medic curriculum, which is application and discovery first followed by a whole class discussion to share ideas and cement new learning. When students have to speak and defend a hypothesis or an argument, they are practicing mathematical reasoning, which is a skill they can take into all STEM coursework. I avoid lectures as much as possible. We also do a lot of flipped classroom learning (videos at home and practice in class), group work, use technology, and do activities that get students moving around the classroom.
I believe that learning mathematics should be a collaborative, exploratory process and that every student already has the skills necessary to become a successful mathematician. It’s my job to give them opportunities to show off and strengthen those skills, so that they can be just as successful with or without me present to help them.
This year you’ve introduced some interesting projects to make your class more interdisciplinary. Tell me a bit more about that.
I’ve really focused on keeping the math contextualized by being sure the content is interdisciplinary. For example, over half of my AP Calculus students are also taking AP Physics. This year, in particular, I was sure to coordinate with the physics teacher to see how we could align our curriculum in kinematics with what we were doing with integrals and derivatives. This began with students doing JPL’s additive velocity lesson in their physics class to set the stage for how calculus ties together acceleration, velocity, and displacement.
Both classes are so challenging for students, but when they see how strategies in one class can help lift them in another, it’s almost as if they are getting to see two different strategies to solve the same problem. Designing challenges that could be solved with both physics and math gave the students an ability to approach problems from either side. At first, they were pretty intimidated to see their two most challenging classes teaming up, but the end result was some incredible student projects and dramatic improvement in their ability to graph out relationships.
I also kick off new units by making connections to students' own life or even their future careers. They need to know the “why” beyond just, “because you’ll be tested on it.” We try to talk about STEM historical figures and current leaders (specifically mathematicians and scientists of color) as often as possible. For example, I use clips from the movies "October Sky" and "Hidden Figures" to set the stage and then lead into projects about rocket trajectories and elliptical orbits.
This year, in calculus, we started the year with the idea of “Agents of Change” and looked at thought leaders such as veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa and climate scientist Nicole Hernandez Hammer and how their work relates to “instant rates of change” and “average rates of change” in calculus. Then, I had students think about moments of change in their life, and how that instant can be carried forward to a make a long term change in their careers and communities.
Coming back from COVID-19 and more than a year of remote instruction, how are your students adjusting to being back in the classroom?
Our students missed out on so many social and academic opportunities because of COVID, but they aren’t letting that stop them. The biggest struggle was starting off the school year and getting back into routines. Because of the demographics of our students, there have been more absences than usual, as many of our students help support their family at home. Many parents struggled to keep work through the pandemic, and a lot of my students work outside of school or take care of their siblings. The effects of caring for their families while still trying to focus on applying to college has really taken a toll on students.
I’m fortunate that so many kids are comfortable and open sharing feelings of increased anxiety, responsibility, or worry over the past two years. I believe it's important that my classroom and our group first and foremost be an escape from that space rather than an added stress. Their success in math – even a rigorous AP math class with a breakneck pace – comes from me being there for them as a person first and a teacher second. We focus so much on “catching them up” that we forget to take some time for them to process all they have had to manage.
As we move toward graduation, what is one story of success that you will take away from this year?
Honestly, it's the success of my students. They have jumped into AP Calculus after 1.5 years of distance learning and the social-emotional learning burdens of Covid, and have done amazing work. They are thoughtful, persistent, and often learning multiple grades worth of skills within one calculus lesson. I guess I'm a small piece of that, but all that I've really done is give them space to explore, discuss, and learn. It's what they've done with that space that has been the best thing to watch!
Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at email@example.com.
Ion Propulsion: Using Spreadsheets to Model Additive Velocity
Students develop spreadsheet models that describe the relationship between the mass of a spacecraft, the force acting on the craft, and its acceleration.
Time 30-60 mins
Explore a collection of standards-aligned math lessons with links to NASA missions and science.
Whether you're looking for a career in STEM or space exploration, this three-part series will cover everything you need to know about the world of internships at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the skills and experience hiring managers are looking for, and how you can set yourself on the right trajectory even before you get to college.
In a typical year, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory brings in about 1,000 interns from schools across the country to take part in projects that range from building spacecraft to studying climate change to developing software for space exploration. One of 10 NASA centers in the United States, the Southern California laboratory receives thousands of applications. So what can students do to stand out and set themselves on the right trajectory?
We asked interns and the people who bring them to JPL about their tips for students and anyone interested in a STEM career or working at the Laboratory. We're sharing their advice in this three-part series.
First up: Learn about the kinds of opportunities available as well as where and how to apply.
The World of JPL Internships
If you found this article, you're probably already somewhat familiar with the work that goes on at JPL. But at a place that employs more than 6,000 people across hundreds of teams, it can be hard to keep track of it all.
Meet JPL Interns
Read stories from interns pushing the boundaries of space exploration and science at the leading center for robotic exploration of the solar system.
In a broad sense, JPL explores Earth, other planets, and the universe beyond with robotic spacecraft – meaning no humans on board. But along with the engineers and scientists who design and build spacecraft and study the data they return, there are thousands of others working on all the in-between pieces that make Earth and space exploration possible and accessible to all. This includes software developers, machinists, microbiologists, writers, video producers, designers, finance and information technology professionals, and more.
Some of the best ways to learn about the Laboratory's work – and get a sense for the kinds of internships on offer – are to follow JPL news and social media channels, take part in virtual and in-person events such as monthly talks, and keep up on the latest research. There are also a host of articles and videos online about interns and employees and the kinds of work they do.
While STEM internships make up the majority of the Laboratory's offerings, there are a handful of opportunities for students studying other subjects as well. Depending on which camp you fit into, there are different places to apply.
Education Office Internships
The largest number of internships can be found on the JPL Education website. These opportunities, for students studying STEM, are offered through about a dozen programs catered to college students of various academic and demographic backgrounds. This includes programs for students attending community college, those at minority-serving institutions, and others at Los Angeles-area schools.
Students apply to a program, or programs, rather than a specific opening. (See the program details for more information about where to apply and what you will need.) It's then up to the folks with open opportunities, the mentors, to select applicants who are the best match for their project.
It may seem odd to send an application into the void with no idea of what offer might return. But there is a good reason behind the process, says Jenny Tieu, a project manager in JPL's Education Office, which manages the Laboratory's STEM internship programs.
"Applying to a specific program allows for the applicant to be seen by a much broader group of hiring managers and mentors and be considered for more opportunities as a result," says Tieu. "We look at the resumes that come in to see what skills are compatible with open projects and then match students to opportunities they may not have even realized were available to them."
Shirin Nataneli says she wouldn't have known there was an internship for her at the Laboratory were it not for a suggestion to apply from her professor. In 2020, Nataneli graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor's degree in biology. She was on the pre-med track, studying for the MCAT, when she decided to take a couple of courses in computer science.
"I got sucked in," says the Santa Monica College student and JPL intern, who is using computer science to help her team classify extreme bacteria that can survive on spacecraft. "I didn't even know there was an intersection between computer science and biology, but somehow I found a group at JPL that does just that."
University Recruiting Opportunities
For college students who are interested in space exploration but studying other fields, such as business, communications, and finance, as well as those studying STEM, there are additional opportunities on the JPL Jobs website. Listed by opportunity, more like a traditional job opening, these internships are managed by the Laboratory's University Recruiting team, which is active on LinkedIn and Instagram and can often be found at conferences and career fairs.
The When, What, and Where
Both Education Office and University Recruiting opportunities are paid and require a minimum 3.00 GPA, U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status, as well as an initial commitment of 10 weeks. Applicants must be enrolled in a college undergraduate or graduate program to be eligible. (See "The Pre-College Trajectory" section of this article below to learn about what high-school and younger students can do to prepare for a future JPL internship or STEM career.)
After pivoting to fully remote internships during the COVID-19 pandemic, JPL has continued to offer some remote or hybrid internships now that the Los Angeles-area campus has opened back up.
"We know that remote internships are effective," says Tieu. "Interns have said that they're able to foster connections with JPL employees and gain valuable experience even from home." She notes that while in-person internships give students maximum exposure to JPL – including visits to Laboratory attractions like mission control, the "clean room" where spacecraft are built, and a rover testing ground called the Mars Yard – remote internships have had a positive impact on students who previously weren't able to participate in person due to life constraints.
Most programs offer housing and travel allowances to students attending universities outside the 50-mile radius of JPL, so be sure to check the program details if traveling to or living in the Los Angeles area could be tricky financially.
Full-time and part-time opportunities can be found throughout the year with most openings in the summertime for full-time interns, meaning 40 hours per week. For summer opportunities, Tieu recommends applying no later than November or December. Applicants can usually expect to hear back by April if they are going to receive an offer for summer, but it's always a good idea to keep yourself in the running, as applicants may be considered for school-year opportunities.
Tieu adds, "If you haven't heard back, and you're closing in on the six-month mark of when you submitted your application, I recommend students go back in and renew their application [for the programs listed on the JPL Education website] so that it remains active in the candidate pool for consideration."
And unlike job applications, where it's sometimes frowned upon to apply to multiple positions at once, it's perfectly alright – and even encouraged – to apply to multiple internships.
You may also want to consider these opportunities, especially if you're looking for internships at other NASA centers, you're a foreign citizen, or you're interested in a postdoc position:
- NASA Internships
- JPL Visiting Student Researcher Program (international students eligible)
- JPL Postdoctoral Study
The most important thing is to not count yourself out, says Tieu. "If you're interested, work on that resume, get people to review your resume and provide input and feedback and apply. We don't expect students to come in knowing how to do everything. We're looking for students with demonstrated problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills. Software and other technical skills are an added bonus and icing on the cake."
More on that next, plus advice from JPL mentors on the skills and experience they look for from potential interns.
Skills for Space Explorers
JPL is known for doing the impossible, whether it's sending spacecraft to the farthest reaches of our solar system or landing a 2,000-pound rover on Mars. But potential applicants may be surprised to learn that reputation wasn't earned by always having the right answer on the first try – or even the second, third, or fourth.
In fact, the Laboratory has always had a penchant for experimentation, starting with its founders, Caltech students who in the 1930s would test rockets in the stairwells at their university. They had so many colossal (and dangerous) failures that they were banished to a dry riverbed north of Pasadena, which is now the site of JPL. Eventually, their rockets were successful and the laboratory they founded went on to build and launch the first American space satellite and send dozens of spacecraft to worlds throughout the solar system. But that trial-and-error attitude still permeates the Laboratory today.
As a result, potential interns who show enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, overcome obstacles, and work as part of a team often stand out more than those with academic achievements alone.
In an informal survey of JPL mentors, respondents most often cited problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills as well as passion for learning and grit as the soft skills they look for when considering potential interns. Respondents added that students who can provide specific examples of these skills on their resume – and speak to them in an interview – stand out the most.
That doesn't necessarily have to mean leading your school’s robotics club or serving as your geology professor's teaching assistant, although those things don't hurt. But also consider less traditional examples, such as how critical thinking helps you overcome challenges while rock climbing or how you used leadership and teamwork to organize your friends to create a group costume for Comic Con.
"Students who share a link to their GitHub repository or online portfolio stand out to me because it shows they took the initiative and took time to build, develop, and create something on their own," says K'mar Grant-Smith, a JPL mentor who leads a team of developers in supporting and maintaining applications for the Laboratory's missions. "That vouches for you better than saying, 'I know these [coding] languages, and I took these courses.'"
Laurie Barge is a JPL scientist who co-leads an astrobiology lab exploring the possibility of life beyond Earth. The lab annually hosts about a dozen students and postdocs. Barge says that the top qualities she looks for in an intern are an expressed interest in her research and JPL as a whole as well as teamwork skills. "I look for students who are excited about the fact that they'll be working with 10 other students and postdocs and collaborating with other people on papers and abstracts."
Teamwork is also key for students working in engineering, software, or any other capacity across the Laboratory. When it comes to designing missions to go where nothing has gone before, collaboration between multi-disciplinary teams is a must.
In terms of technical skills, knowledge of coding languages is the most sought after, with Python, MATLAB, and C languages leading the pack. And in certain groups, like the one that helps identify where it's safe to land spacecraft on Mars, experience with specialized tools like Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, can help applicants stand out.
Still, for many mentors, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn and be proactive are far more important than any technical skill.
"You don't have to be the most technically savvy person. If you have the initiative, the drive, and some experience, I find that to be more important than knowing 16 different [coding] languages," says Grant-Smith. "JPL is a unique place full of very smart people, but we're not good at what we do just because we have the know-how. We also have the drive and a passion for it."
So you're a rock-climbing Red Planet enthusiast who likes to create "Dune"-inspired stillsuits when you're not busy at your part-time job making frappuccinos with your fellow baristas. How do you improve the chances this information will land on a JPL mentor's desk?
In a sentence: Build a strong network. So says Rebecca Gio of what made all the difference when she was struggling to find her academic groove right after high school. After a year spent repeating classes, changing schools, and feeling discouraged about what was next, Gio discovered what she needed to change her trajectory. She joined clubs and organizations that aligned with her career goals, formed study groups with her peers, found a mentor who could help her navigate everything from college classes to internship opportunities, and wasn't afraid to ask when she had a question.
Now, Gio is thriving – academically and on her career path. She's a junior studying computer science at Cal Poly Pomona and a first-time intern at JPL, where she's testing the software that will serve as the brains of a spacecraft designed to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.
"Being part of a community and being with people who have gone through similar experiences and can push you to do better, I think that that is just super motivating," says Gio.
JPL Education Program Manager Jenny Tieu agrees. “Along with academic achievements, we’re looking for students with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences who can work collaboratively to learn, adapt to new situations, and solve problems.”
To that end, she suggests students get involved in campus STEM clubs and communities, NASA challenges and activities, and volunteer opportunities, which offer career experiences, introduce students to a network of peers and professionals, and look great on a resume.
Tieu leads a JPL internship program that partners with historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. She says that one way students get connected with the program is by word-of-mouth from current and former participants, who include students and faculty researchers.
"We see a lot of great allyship with interns and research fellows telling their classmates about their experience at JPL, how to apply, and what to expect," says Tieu. "We foster deep relationships with our partner campuses and their faculty as well." In other words, students may not have to look farther than their own professors, campus info sessions, or career fairs to learn about opportunities at the Laboratory.
A career fair is where Gio first connected with JPL's University Recruiting team after what she jokingly calls "stalking" them from LinkedIn to Handshake to the Grace Hopper conference – where she eventually handed over her resume. "Just get familiar with where JPL is going to be and try to make sure that you're there," says Gio.
In the sciences especially, those connections can also be made through a shared interest in a particular area of research. Barge says that most of the students she brings to JPL find out about her research from a peer or professor, exploring the lab's website, or from reading papers her team has published. Then, they reach out to her directly. This way she can create a position suited to a student's skills while also finding out if their interests mesh with the team.
"I want to know why they're interested in JPL and not a different institution," says Barge. "Why do they want to work with me and not another person at JPL? Why do they want to do this research and what specifically would they like to gain from this internship experience? I'm trying to figure out who really, really wants this particular opportunity."
As Gio points out, it's often the same advice that applies whether you're looking for an internship at JPL or in STEM or a future career.
"If you really want it, if you really want to be a STEM professional, make the most of your education, and find ways to apply those skills," says Gio. "I made sure that I was a part of campus groups where I was doing extra projects outside of schoolwork. I made sure that I was talking to other students to learn what they were doing. There's a lot of opportunities now to learn online for free. If there's something that you think would interest you, just go and do it."
Next, we'll share more ways students can prepare for a future internship or career in STEM before they get to college, plus resources parents and teachers can use to get younger students practicing STEM skills.
The Pre-College Trajectory
First, let's address one of the most common questions we get when it comes to internships at JPL. As of this writing, the Laboratory does not offer an open call for high-school interns. For most of the past several years, JPL has been able to bring in just a handful of high-school students from underserved communities thanks to partnerships with local school districts.
That's not to say that there won't be an open call for high-school internships at JPL in the future. If and when opportunities become available, they'll be posted here on the JPL Education website.
That said, there's still plenty students can and should do before college or when they're just entering college to explore STEM fields, get hands-on experience, and practice the skills they'll need for a future internship or career.
Exploring STEM Fields
Ota Lutz, a former classroom teacher, leads JPL's K-12 education team, which takes the Laboratory's science, engineering, and technical work and translates it into STEM education resources for teachers, students, and families.
Other than exploring high-school internships at other organizations, Lutz says that students in grades K-12 can get hands-on experience through clubs, competitions, and camps offered in person and online.
Schools often have engineering, robotics, math, and science clubs, but if not, look for one in your community or encourage students to start their own, perhaps with the help of a teacher.
If cost is an issue for camps or competitions, Lutz recommends that parents or guardians reach out to the host organization to see if scholarships are available and that they explore free events offered by groups such as NASA's Solar System Ambassadors and Night Sky Network as well as programs at museums, science centers, and libraries in their community.
NASA also offers a number of citizen science projects that give students (and adults) opportunities to contribute to real research, from identifying near-Earth asteroids to observing and cataloging clouds to searching for planets beyond our solar system.
Building Foundational Skills
All of the above can help students explore whether they might be interested in STEM, but it's also important that kids start practicing the skills they will need to succeed academically and in a future internship or career.
"Developing those foundational STEM and language arts skills is incredibly important to future success," says Lutz, adding that, generally, students should practice what are called scientific habits of mind, "learning how to think critically, problem solve and do so in a methodical way as well as learning to examine data to determine trends without personal bias."
One way students can gain skills and knowledge directly related to a future STEM internship or career is by trying these educational projects and activities offered free online from the JPL Education Office. (Teachers can explore this page to find out how to turn these activities into standards-aligned classroom lessons.) Activities include engineering projects and science experiments as well as math and coding challenges, all of which feature the latest NASA missions and science.
Coding skills, in particular, will serve students well no matter what career path they take, says Lutz. "Coding is something that is applicable across a broad range of subject areas and majors, so we strongly encourage students to learn some coding."
She points to the plethora of online courses and tutorials in coding and other STEM subjects that give students a chance to explore on their own and work on projects that interest them.
Parents and guardians can also help their kids develop foundational skills by allowing them to explore and tinker at home. "In every house, there's something that needs fixing," says Lutz. "Have the kid figure out how to fix a wobbly chair, but be patient with mistakes and encourage them to keep trying." That persistence and determination in overcoming obstacles will come in handy throughout their education and career path, whether it's learning how to code, getting into a robotics club in high school, applying and reapplying for internships, or figuring out how to land a spacecraft on Mars.
Similarly, it's never too early to start learning those ever-important soft skills such as teamwork, communication, and leadership. There's no single or right place to gain these skills, rather they come from a range of experiences that can include a school project, a part-time job, or a volunteer opportunity.
Lutz grew up in a small town in Central California and says, "I was a smart kid, but these things called soft skills were beyond me, and I was the shyest kid in my class." That is until she joined her high school's service club. "Through volunteering, I ended up interacting with people from all walks of life and learned how to work with teams. My club advisor coached me, and I started taking on more leadership roles in the club and in class projects."
Later, it was that same club advisor and her youth pastor who encouraged Lutz to attend a college that would challenge her academically despite pressures to stay closer to home.
"You never know what experiences or conversations might open up opportunities for you," says Lutz, which is why she recommends that students get comfortable talking with peers and teachers – and especially asking questions. "It's really important to learn to ask questions so you build your confidence in learning and also develop relationships with people."
Launching into College
As Lutz experienced, those foundational skills can make all the difference when it comes to transitioning into college, too.
"When I got to college, I discovered I was woefully unprepared even though I had been at the top of my class in high school," says Lutz. "I never learned how to study, and I mistakenly believed that asking questions would make me look dumb. After struggling on my own for a couple of years, I learned that study groups existed and they helped me get to know my peers, build my confidence, and improve my GPA."
While building a support network is key, don't overload yourself the first year, Lutz says. But do start taking classes in the field you're interested in to see if it's the right fit. "The important thing is getting some experience in the field that you think you want to go into."
After that, internships, whether they're at JPL, NASA or elsewhere, will give you an even deeper look at what a future career might be like. When the time comes, you'll know exactly where to look to set yourself on the right trajectory – that is just above under "The World of JPL Internships" and "Skills for Space Explorers."
The laboratory’s STEM internship and fellowship programs are managed by the JPL Education Office. Extending the NASA Office of STEM Engagement’s reach, JPL Education seeks to create the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists and space explorers by supporting educators and bringing the excitement of NASA missions and science to learners of all ages.
Jayme Wisdom has been teaching for 15 years at the Vaughn Charter System in Pacoima, California. She has taught eighth-grade science for most of her career but switched to high school biology for the first time this year.
Ms. Wisdom has long utilized NASA and JPL educational resources, finding creative ways to adapt lessons to meet her students’ needs and exposing them to STEM careers.
A self-described professional nerd, she doesn't shy away from her love of all things Star Trek and Star Wars (and stands firm in her refusal to pick which is superior). While presenting during a recent JPL Education workshop, she shared how she continues to get her students excited about science – both in the classroom and remotely – during the COVID era.
What unique challenges do you face engaging or addressing the needs of your students?
Many of the students I teach face challenges including poverty, homelessness, and learning English as a second language. This year, in particular, has been extremely difficult for all of us dealing with the pandemic and distance learning. As a teacher, I have had to find ways to make sure that my students are engaged in scientific inquiry and have access to resources and materials while learning remotely. This begins and ends with a conscious effort to acknowledge that kids are struggling with this online format and carving out time in every single class to provide the socio-emotional support they have come to expect from a classroom environment. Before we dive into content, this means making time for check-ins and updates. In any in-person classroom, we carve out time to get to know each other, and being online should not diminish that. Of course, as we all learned this year, easier said than done.
Social isolation is another factor that contributes to the challenges of distance learning. Even though students see their peers virtually, it is often difficult for them to open up and talk as freely as they would if they were in a physical classroom. So I have had to find ways to make sure that my students are comfortable with engaging in a virtual setting by allowing them opportunities to talk and collaborate with each other online.
Lessons for Educators
Bring NASA STEM into the classroom with standards-aligned lessons exploring Earth, Mars, and worlds beyond.
Using breakout sessions was difficult at first, because the students were very self-conscious about speaking to each other on screen and were reluctant to share ideas. So every day, we spent the first few minutes in each class just talking to each other through text-based chat to get them socializing and feeling more comfortable with this new way of interacting. Now they are more comfortable engaging in scientific inquiry with each other and have meaningful discussions to expand their learning. It is not the same as having them physically perform labs together in class but things are definitely improving.
Another challenge has been providing all of my students with access to resources and materials that allow them to simulate a laboratory experience at home. I have been pleasantly surprised at the wealth of resources I have available to me as a teacher to provide virtual labs and activities to my students. Whether it is virtual demonstrations and simulations or scientific investigations that require simple materials that students can find around the house, we have been very resourceful so we can give students the best experience possible through distance learning. Promoting lab science with home supplies has been instrumental in student engagement, as they really get to explore in their own context, expressing themselves creatively with what they have at their disposal instead of being provided the materials.
How have you used lessons from NASA and JPL to keep students engaged while teaching in person and remotely?
I have always been fascinated by outer space and have loved sci-fi TV shows and movies since I was very young. So as a teacher, I was so excited to discover ways to use my love of astronomy to engage my students.
When I discovered NASA and JPL's resources and lessons, I went through them like a kid in a candy store. I found so many different activities that I could adapt to use in my own classroom. Over the past few years, I have used several JPL Education lessons and modified and extended them for my students.
For example, I took JPL's Touchdown lesson and allowed students to create their own planetary lander using materials they could find around their home. I challenged them to create a way to quantify how much impact the touchdown would have on the "astronauts" in their lander. Some students used balls of play dough as their astronauts, and quantified the impact by measuring the dents made in the play dough by paper clips that they had placed on the "seats" of their lander.
Another example was when I combined the Soda-Straw Rocket and Stomp Rockets lessons. I had my students create a straw-stomp rocket to investigate how changing the angle of the rocket launch could have an effect on the distance the rocket traveled.
My students also had the opportunity to participate in engineering activities with JPL and college students from Pasadena City College. The impact that this had on my students was profound and long-lasting. It was inspiring for my students to hear from NASA scientists and student role-models who encouraged them to pursue careers in science, engineering, and technology.
How have students reacted to these lessons?
The biggest payoff for me was seeing students envision themselves as NASA scientists. They learned to collaborate with each other, learn from each other, and challenge each other. They were able to experience every step of the engineering process firsthand. They were actively involved in designing, building, and testing their rockets and landers. They could also gather information from watching other students revise and improve their designs. Learning from each other was so much fun for them. As a teacher, watching my students strengthen their critical thinking, practical engineering, and problem-solving skills is one of the best parts of my job.
You switched from teaching middle school to teaching high school this year. How are you thinking about incorporating NASA resources into lessons for older students?
Growing up, I loved how the technology that I saw in the sci-fi shows I watched as a kid eventually made its way into our reality. I am always amazed at how NASA scientists push the boundaries of technology development and are only limited by the scope of their imagination.
As a high school biology teacher, I'm looking forward to having my students examine the ways that space technology is being used to help humans improve the health of the planet. Investigating climate change and the ecological impact humans have on the environment is so important. Looking at how NASA gathers data to better understand climate change is especially critical at this time because my students' generation is going to play a pivotal role in developing technologies for improving life on Earth. I'm looking forward to continuing to use JPL Education resources to help my students prepare for that challenge.
Looking for ways to bring NASA STEM into your classroom or already have a great idea? The Education Office at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves educators in the greater Los Angeles area. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students design and build a shock-absorbing system that will protect two "astronauts" when they land.
Time 30-60 mins
Students study rocket stability as they design, construct and launch paper rockets using soda straws.
Time Less than 30 mins
In this video lesson, students learn to design, build and launch paper rockets, calculate how high they fly and improve their designs.
Time 1-2 hrs
Roving on the Moon
Students build a rubber-band-powered rover that can scramble across the room.
Time 30-60 mins
Global Warming Demonstration
This demonstration uses a water balloon to show how Earth's oceans are absorbing most of the heat being trapped on our warming world.
Time Less than 30 mins
After a full day of intense competition, a team of students from University High School in Irvine, California, earned first place in a regional round of the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl on Jan. 26, 2019. This is the second consecutive year that the school has placed first in the regional round, and it's the 27th year that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has hosted the competition.
UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2018 – The InSight spacecraft successfully touched down on Mars just before noon on Nov. 26, 2018, marking the eighth time NASA has succeeded in landing a spacecraft on the Red Planet. This story has been updated to reflect the current mission status. For more mission updates, follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, JPL News, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA).
NASA's newest Mars mission, the InSight lander, touched down on the Red Planet just before noon PST on Nov. 26. But there's more work ahead before the mission can get a look into the inner workings of Mars. Get your classroom ready to partake in all the excitement of NASA’s InSight mission with this educator game plan. We’ve got everything you need to engage students in NASA's ongoing exploration of Mars!
Day Before Landing
- Read NASA/JPL Edu’s Teachable Moment, “NASA’s ‘Cyber Monday’ Mars Landing to Deliver Science Firsts,” to get a preview of the engineering and science involved in landing InSight and placing its instruments on Mars. Explore the related activities and resources in the “Teach It” and “Explore More” sections.
Landing Day (Nov. 26)
- Check out The Oatmeal’s webcomic for an explainer of how the InSight mission will land on Mars, what it will do on the planet and what it's hoping to find out.
- Watch these fun, one-minute videos for a quick overview of how landing sites are chosen, how spacecraft get to Mars, and what it takes to land there.
- Have students read about JPL’s “landing-site dude” and his rotating cast of interns, who have helped select seven of NASA’s Mars landing sites – including InSight’s!
- Have students read the JPL news release “How Will We Know When InSight Touches Down?”
- Watch live commentary as a class and follow along on the InSight Mission Blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter (@NASAInSight, @NASAJPL and @NASA) using #MarsLanding.
- Review the Teachable Moment to find out what needs to happen before InSight’s science operations can begin. Then create an instructional plan with these lessons, activities and resources that get students engaged in the science and engineering behind the mission.
- Check out InSight’s first images from Mars, here. (This is also where you can find raw images from InSight throughout the life of the mission.)
Over the Next Month
- Watch these “Mars in a Minute” videos to find out what InSight is hoping to learn on the Red Planet: “What’s Inside Mars?” “Are There Quakes on Mars?” And “How Did Mars Get Such Enormous Mountains?”
- Have students explore NASA’s Experience InSight interactive to learn about InSight’s science instruments and how each will be deployed to the surface of Mars.
- Follow along on the InSight Mission Blog and @NASAInSight social media over the next few weeks as NASA gets to work surveying the landing site and determining where to place each of the instruments.
- Try the lessons and activities below with students to get them doing some of the same science and engineering as InSight:
Robotic Arm Challenge
In this challenge, students will use a model robotic arm to move items from one location to another. They will engage in the engineering design process to design, build and operate the arm.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
*NEW* Exploring the Colors of Mars
Students use satellite and rover images to learn about the various features and materials that cause color variation on the surface of Mars, then create their own “Marscape.”
Grades 2 and 5
Time 1-2 hrs
*NEW* Planetary (Egg) Wobble and Newton's First Law
Students try to determine the interior makeup of an egg (hard-boiled or raw) based on their understanding of center of mass and Newton’s first law of motion.
Grades 3, 6-8
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Students design and build a shock-absorbing system that will protect two "astronauts" when they land.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
Mission to Mars Unit
In this 19-lesson, standards-aligned unit, students learn about Mars, design a mission to explore the planet, build and test model spacecraft and components, and engage in scientific exploration.
*NEW* Heat Flow Programming Challenge
Students use microcontrollers and temperature sensors to measure the flow of heat through a soil sample.
Time 1-2 hrs
In this illustrated math problem, students use the mathematical constant pi to identify the timing and location of a seismic event on Mars, called a "marsquake."
Time Less than 30 mins
Resources and Activities
- Teachable Moment: NASA InSight Lander to Get First Look at ‘Heart’ of Mars
- InSight Lessons
- Mars Lessons
- Mars Activities for Students
Feature Stories and Podcasts
- InSight Podcast: "On a Mission"
- "The 'Claw Game' on Mars Plays to Win" – Oct 16, 2018
- "NASA's InSight Will Study Mars While Standing Still" – Oct. 24, 2018
- "The Mars InSight Landing Site is Just Plain Perfect" – Nov. 5, 2018
Websites and Interactives
In The News
This week, we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL was founded long before it became NASA’s premier center for robotic exploration of the solar system – and even before the agency existed. In fact, JPL started as the test-bed for some of the earliest rocketry experiments (thus the name “Jet Propulsion Laboratory”). There were a number of factors that conspired to change JPL’s focus from rocketry to space exploration. The Space Race and the resulting formation of NASA were two major factors. But also, with its growing expertise in launching rockets to new heights, JPL was anxious to take its experiments even farther. So in 1957, when the Soviet Union won the first leg of the Space Race by placing Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into Earth orbit, JPL was called into action. A few months later, NASA launched the JPL-built Explorer 1, which became the first U.S. satellite.
Soon, the challenge was to land on the moon – and JPL was once again called to the task. Landing on another planetary body had never been accomplished so, understandably, it took a few tries to get things right. JPL’s first attempts at a moon landing with Rangers 1 through 6 all failed for various reasons. Some of the spacecraft flew very near the moon only to miss it by a few hundred kilometers; others met their mark only to have onboard cameras fail. Ranger 7 was the first mission to successfully land on the moon and transmit data, capturing images 1,000-times better than those obtained by ground-based telescopes. It wasn’t a particularly soft landing; rather it was a purposeful crash landing, capturing images along the way. But everyone at JPL was thrilled to have hit their target and returned usable data. These data, and those collected by subsequent missions, made possible NASA’s later human missions to the moon.
At the same time it was launching the Ranger lunar missions, JPL had also set its sights on venturing even farther into space and began launching a series of missions called Mariner to Venus, Mercury and Mars. It wasn’t long before JPL’s specialty became creating robotic spacecraft to go not just to the moon, but also where no one had gone before.
Learn more about the history of JPL and the U.S. space program in the video series below. And explore the interactive timeline.
How They Did It
What’s often not known is that all the early rocket experiments and later missions to the moon and beyond wouldn’t have been possible without a team at JPL known as the human “computers.” Most of these human computers were women who either had degrees in mathematics or were simply very good at mathematics. Over the course of time, these women not only performed hundreds of thousands of mathematical calculations crucial to the U.S. space program, but also eventually became some of the first computer programmers at NASA.
In the early days of space exploration, the best mechanical computers were large (the size of a room) and not particularly powerful. Human capabilities were much more powerful for many tasks, including the rapid calculations needed for trajectory analysis and verification, as well as the graphing of data points on trajectories, which made a spacecraft’s path easy to see.
One of the human computers’ main tasks was computing the planned trajectories, or paths, for a spacecraft based on the vehicle weight, lift capacity of the rocket, and the orbital dynamics of the planets.
When a spacecraft is launched, it begins sending telemetry signals back to Earth. These signals tell engineers information about the spacecraft’s location and health. But this information isn’t perfectly straightforward. It arrives as a bunch of numbers that need to be combined in formulas along with other constantly changing parameters (such as velocity, vehicle mass and the effect of gravity from nearby bodies) in order to reveal the spacecraft’s actual location. Before there were computers (as we know them today) to do these calculations, human computers would feverishly calculate the exact location of the spacecraft as the telemetry came in and compare that to the planned trajectories. Their calculations would reveal whether the spacecraft was on target.
Doing the calculations required to get Explorer 1 into orbit was no small task. Calculating the trajectory for a Ranger crash landing or a Surveyor soft landing on the moon was even more challenging. Once humans were destined to be on board for the Apollo missions, the stakes were even higher. Fortunately, JPL had set the stage developing the techniques – and calculations – necessary to land a robotic spacecraft safely on the moon.
Why It’s Important
Today, JPL continues setting the pace for exploration of the solar system using robots to go where humans hope to venture one day, such as Mars. Though trajectory computations are now done using modern day computers, humans are still required to do trajectory analysis and mission planning. Every mission is different, and with new techniques comes new simulation equations that must be developed and computations that must be performed during actual mission events to ensure success. But even now, nothing is fail-proof. Lots of variables can and do influence spaceflight. Arriving safely on another planet millions of miles away isn’t easy or taken for granted, but when things go right and we achieve a safe landing, it is definitely cause for celebration.
When launching to another planet, we want to take the most efficient route, using the least amount of rocket fuel possible. The early human computers quickly discovered that launching when two planets are closest and using a lot of rocket fuel for the job isn’t the best plan.
Use this fascinating bit of history as a real world, advanced algebra and physics lesson with students in this standards-aligned activity that has grades 9-12 calculate the next launch window to Mars!
Let's Go to Mars! Calculating Launch Windows
Students use advanced algebra concepts to determine the next opportunity to launch a spacecraft to Mars.
Time 30 mins - 1 hr
- Meet JPL engineer Sue Finley – Finley started at JPL in 1958 as a human computer and still works at the laboratory.
- Women at JPL website
- JPL History
- JPL 80th Anniversary Article
- JPL Timeline
- JPL 80th Anniversary Video Playlist
- JPL 80th Anniversary Printable Calendar
- Mars in a Minute Video Series
- Stomp Rockets Activity
- Basics of Space Flight Tutorial
On a recent school night, seven enthusiastic female engineers and scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, rolled into Santa Clarita, armed with three eight-wheeled Mars rover models. Their mission: to encourage hundreds of junior high and high school girls to reach for the stars in their education and future careers. Their strategy: to pique the girls' interest with an event called "Women in STEM: Going to Mars and Beyond!"
The evening featured rover races, demos and encouragement from the JPLers, who told the girls, "You, too, can do what we do someday."
There was definitely an audience for a message like that. Within five days of being advertised online, the March 18 event at Golden Valley High School "sold out," with 550 free tickets distributed and a waiting list cut off after 90 people.
"This just shows that people are hungry for events where girls can learn about STEM careers and consider them as an option," said Dennis Young, who works on the Mars Curiosity rover mission at JPL. Young, a longtime Santa Clarita resident, initiated and organized the event. His motivation was to expose his young daughter and other girls like her to career opportunities in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - in the same way as his son and other boys. He had the blessing of Curiosity Project Manager Jim Erickson, who said, "I'm happy to support our team in fostering interest in STEM by young people."
The event was a collaboration between JPL and the William S. Hart Union School District. Janis Fiock, the district's college and career advisor, said she was thrilled when Young first proposed the event to her. "I recognize that women are under-represented in STEM careers. Girls need exceptional role models such as the women scientists and engineers from JPL to encourage them to move forward with their goals. They need to know that it's 'cool' to be smart."
Among the role models participating that night was Mars Curiosity Deputy Project Manager Jennifer Trosper, who also lives in Santa Clarita. Trosper had already teamed up with Young for previous community outreach and education events. She eagerly agreed to speak at the Women in STEM event, as did the six other speakers. Trosper's presentation included hands-on demonstrations, such as asking a young girl to jump as high as she could, then showing her with a tape measure how much higher she could jump under the lesser gravity of Mars.
One common theme ran through all the personal stories shared by the JPL speakers: STEM is not just for boys. Mechanical engineer Jackie Lyra explained that as a child in Brazil, she was literally told the opposite - that engineering school was only for boys. But she ended up studying in the U.S. and ultimately working at JPL, where she has been involved in landing four rovers on Mars, including Curiosity.
Lyra believes that because girls are generally not exposed to STEM topics as often as boys, the subject matter might seem intimidating to some, and they might be afraid to fail. She tried to drive home the point that it's okay to fail, as long as you learn from your mistakes and try again.
Looking back on the evening, Trosper recalls one particular conversation with a girl that reminded her why it's important to promote STEM opportunities. The girl had previously been told at a career fair that she should pursue a job in sales because she was pretty and could make a lot more money.
"This turned her off to engineering, even though she had dreamed of building a spacecraft to capture space junk and designing rocket engines to travel to distant stars," Trosper said. "Her mother dragged her to our STEM event to see if her interest in space could be sparked again." Trosper hopes she encouraged the girl to pursue her dreams, whatever they are, and not to let anyone else tell her what her talents or interests should be. "Besides, I told her I probably make more money than many people in sales."
Lyra brought up that same point in her presentation, throwing out a few numbers to demonstrate that the girls can potentially make more money in STEM. She asked the audience "Who wants to make $280 today?" After hands shot up throughout the auditorium, Lyra explained that STEM careers are not only fun and exciting, but lucrative as well -- a female fresh out of college could make about $75,000 a year with a bachelor's degree.
Other JPL speakers included Molly Bitner, just a few years out of college and working as a systems engineer, who told the girls she loves STEM, skydiving and chocolate; Victoria Davis, a chemist in the JPL battery group who lives in Santa Clarita and, in fact, introduced two local teachers who had pushed her toward excellence at Saugus High School; and Kim Lichtenberg, who, despite being the daughter of an astronaut and thinking she herself would not pursue a STEM career, eventually carved her own path in the sciences, with specialties such as analyzing Martian terrain.
Another JPLer, Shannon Statham, an aerospace engineer, described how she works with CubeSats -- "big satellites in small packages" and, in her free time, perfects salsa dancing. Diana Trujillo told the audience she spoke minimal English when she came to the United States from Colombia. She worked hard to become an engineer and now, at JPL, she "telecommutes" to Mars, as part of the team that sends computer commands to Curiosity.
During the course of the evening, the non-human guests also got their share of attention. The three Mars rover models arranged on the stage sprang into action at times, first when the girls joined in races with them. Then, the audience was invited to come up and get "rolled over" by a mini rover. The first volunteer was Hart School District Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht, who gamely went up on stage to have a rover "run over" her back. Once the ice was broken, the girls and their parents lined up to sprawl on a blanket so the rover could roll over them, too.
Young points out that, because numerous studies show that girls often hesitate to raise their hands and ask a question in a group setting, there was no formal Q and A. Instead, at the end of the event, there was a casual meet-and-greet, featuring the women of JPL standing near tables festooned with spacecraft parts, brochures and stickers.
As the audience filed out afterwards, smiles were clearly visible on the faces of the students, parents and JPL participants.
Young has heard from grateful parents who were thrilled that their daughters were able to meet real-life female role models from JPL. But he thinks perhaps the ultimate measure of success came during the program, while the JPL women were speaking. He watched the audience closely and did not see even one girl looking down at a cell phone or texting.
For more information about hiring JPL speakers for your classroom or group, visit the JPL Speakers Bureau page.
To hear more inspirational stories from female engineers and scientists at JPL, visit the Women at JPL website.
More than 50 students from schools across Los Angeles County took their science experiments and engineering designs on the road on Tuesday for the opportunity to display their work during a science fair showcase at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Students as young as 11 filed into JPL's von Karman auditorium, eager to speak with professional scientists and engineers about their projects, which examined questions like: Could a solar oven be an effective cooking tool? How well does the human eye adjust to light? Is hagfish slime an efficient material for cleaning up oil spills? And how do different building bracing systems stand up in an earthquake?
JPL's chief scientist, Dan McCleese, who oversees the laboratory's research programs, met with students about their projects to offer feedback and encouragement.
"What you're working on today may end up being what you do for the rest of your life, and it's the greatest thing in the world," McCleese said during an opening address to the students. "When I was a freshman in high school, I started studying Mars, and I will admit I do that today."
David Seidel, manager of K-12 programs for JPL's Education Office, which organized the showcase, said it's statements like McCleese's that illustrate the value of science fairs for students.
"When students do a science project and they're properly mentored and they're doing real science, they're experiencing it. They're actually doing the science and engineering themselves and not just talking about it or following some sort of recipe," Seidel said. "So if you're looking for the next generation of scientists, let's get them in the habit of actually trying to do some science while they're still young."
While eighth-grader Sarah Garelick, 13, hasn't yet decided on her future career, her science fair project did give her the chance to investigate a personal interest.
"I was inspired by my dad," said Garelick, whose project looked at how the rate of glucose released into a pancreas would affect insulin levels. "He had his pancreas removed when I was little."
It was a similar motivation that drove sixth-grader Jeanie Benedict, 11, to create an elaborate evaporative cooling system for chinchillas -- a system she named "Chinchiller."
"Last summer during a Los Angeles heatwave, my pet chinchilla died of a heatstroke, so I wanted to create something that could have prevented it," said Benedict, whose project proved such a curiosity for passers-by that she barely had time to grab a slice of the free cake on offer to attendees.
"What stood out to me was the diversity of student projects that represented the diversity of student interests," said education specialist Ota Lutz, who created and starred in an online video series that walks students through the ins and outs of creating their own science fair projects. "Students do a lot of work to develop these science fair projects, so this event was a great opportunity for them to showcase their hard work and interact with professional scientists and engineers."
Enthusiasm for the event was so high that when participants, who had already presented their projects at the Los Angeles County Science Fair, were invited to register for the showcase, the available slots filled up within 24 hours.
"It was a big success," said Seidel. "I think it was eye-opening for a lot of the students and the chaperones to learn about the range of activities we have here at JPL and interact with people who are doing these things professionally."
For more events, activities and resources for students, provided by the JPL Education Office, visit http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/students/
The JPL Education Office provides formal and informal educators, parents and students with NASA science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) content, including resources, classroom activities and internship opportunities.
Sixty-six teams from Southern California, Hawaii, Colombia and Chile competed in the Los Angeles regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition on March 13 and 14. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, sponsored seven teams in this annual engineering and technology contest, which was held at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Winning teams for the overall regional competition were from Hope Chapel Academy, Hermosa Beach, California; Atascadero High School and Beverly Hills High School. Hawthorne High School received the competition's highest honor, the Regional Chairman's Award.
This year's challenge, "Recycle Rush" was a recycling-themed game played by two alliances of three robots each. Robots score points by stacking totes on scoring platforms, capping those stacks with recycling containers, and properly disposing of pool noodles, representing litter. In keeping with the recycling theme of the game, all game pieces used are reusable or recyclable by teams in their home locations or by FIRST at the end of the season.
Working with adult mentors, students have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet the season's engineering challenge. The teams then participate in one or more of 105 regional and district events that measure the effectiveness of each robot, the power of collaboration and the determination of students.
The participants are vying to compete in the FIRST Championship to be held April 22-25 in St. Louis, Missouri. FIRST is part of NASA's Robotics Alliance Project, which aims to expand the number of robotics systems experts available to NASA.
More information and a short video about FIRST are at: http://www.usfirst.org
More information on NASA's Robotics Alliance Project is at: http://robotics.nasa.gov
Discover more competitions sponsored by JPL: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/education/index.cfm?page=384