- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

PHOENIX - Children, scientists need your help. As the Mars rover went prospecting on Martian landscapes, an Arizona State University program called Schoolhouse Rocks was asking children worldwide to help identify the data that the rover sends back to Earth.

Students could contribute to Mars research by sending rocks to the university lab, where scientists will figure out the rock’s type and mineral makeup. The data will be included in a spectral library of about 100 rocks, which will be used to compare and contrast rocks from Mars and Earth.

“It’s interplanetary detective work,” said Keith Watt, assistant director of the ASU Mars Education Program, which is sponsoring the call for rocks in conjunction with the ASU Mars Space Flight Facility. “With kids sending in their rocks, we can analyze that and get a new entry in our catalog we didn’t have before.”

Susi Huffaker’s third-graders at Meyer Elementary School in Tempe brought rocks to class, with plans to deliver them to ASU. Mars has been a hot topic for the class.

“They got so enthused with the rover coming down to Mars and bouncing on the surface,” Miss Huffaker said. “This is another opportunity to make learning more relevant and more fun. It’s hard to teach them unless there’s a point in it.”

Anthony Nop, one of Miss Huffaker’s pupils, got the point. He brought in a 4-inch-long purplish rock that he found in his back yard, and it was clear the Red Planet held a certain intrigue to the 8-year-old and his classmates.

“I think Mars rocks have pointy ends and it’s really big,” Anthony said.

Nine-year-old Saurav Barua, a self-described explorer, brought in a 2-inch reddish rock that he found in a parking lot.

“I think there is life because the cement on Mars looks like roads we drive on because the rover drives on it,” he said.

Teacher Nancy Rollins would like her fifth-grade class at Maricopa Elementary School to be involved in the project. As the 2002 winners of the Fiesta Bowl Honeywell Aerospace Challenge, the pupils are especially aware of news about Mars because they have worked on long-term space projects and have visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“Anytime we can get kids involved with space and they realize that their world isn’t the little town they’re in, it expands their horizon,” Miss Rollins said. “The chance to work at NASA is real to them because we’ve been there.”

The idea that children get as close as they can to space and space research drives the project, which was developed by Phil Christensen, an ASU professor of geological sciences who conceived Schoolhouse Rocks.

“What he really wants is that kids are involved in doing real, authentic science,” Mr. Watt said of Mr. Christensen, who is also the Mars rover’s principle investigator of the miniature thermal emissions spectrometer. The device, which was developed at ASU, looks at a rock’s infrared emissions and wavelengths and determines its composition.

The laboratory version of the thermal emissions spectrometer will analyze the entries submitted to Schoolhouse Rocks.

Although Schoolhouse Rocks probably won’t yield a rock that geologists have never seen, the program most likely will build up the current rock library. Since Jan. 8, when the program was launched, the university has received about 800 rocks from several countries.

Mr. Watt added, “I expect we’ll get several pieces of gravel, and that’s fine.”

More likely, scientists expect rocks “unique from a geological standpoint — like volcanic rock from a tropical area,” Mr. Watt said. “Getting a rock from the Polynesian Islands would be great for us; it’s a rock we wouldn’t otherwise find.”

Rocks sent to the program should be clean and measure 2 to 6 inches long. Participants also could include additional information about the rocks, such as the latitude and longitude of the sample site and a short paragraph describing the area where the rock was found.

Mr. Watt estimated that it would take a couple weeks for scientists to analyze the rocks, give them a unique catalog number and post them on the Web site (https://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/classroom/schoolhouse) along with each participant’s first name, age and city.

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