In the fall of 2014, I sought out some students to participate in a 6-month long research project related to asteroid science. The program is called Exploration of the Moon and Asteroids by Secondary Students (ExMASS) and is managed by the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration (CLSE) and administered at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.
The students were juniors and seniors. My experience has been that juniors have the desire and most of the needed knowledge, and seniors have the needed knowledge and most of the desire. So mixing juniors and seniors is often a winning combination when it comes to academic programs. After a bit of shifting around, we ended up with a final team of 3 seniors and 2 juniors. I have taught each of the students in the 5-member team in at least 2 courses: AP Physics C, AP Computer Science, and IB Astronomy. Some of them have had all three courses.
The initial objective is for the team to analyze some known data about asteroids and present their findings to one of the program administrators. This means a web-based presentation to a scientist about a topic the students only recently explored. This is called the asteroid 101 presentation. Once that’s done, a bit of a debrief is in order. How did the students answer the scientist’s questions? What was good and what was bad about the actual presentation? What science skills do the students still lack?
Next up the team gets to know their science advisor. The start and stop process of trying to choose a direction for actual research can be very frustrating. This is where I feel like the mentor’s role (that’s me) is critical. The students lose focus. They don’t really have enough experience. They need encouragement. They need face-to-face meetings to brainstorm. Eventually one of the team members dug a bit deeper and came up with some possible avenues of research. She presented her findings, and the team debated and discussed. Then they simply picked one of the ideas and ran with it.
This is when things got interesting. The positive feedback loop between the team and the science advisor seriously allowed the team to have ownership of their research. They needed to learn some science skills, some math skills, and some tech skills to put the question and the answer together. Eventually the team realized they had found the possible fingerprints of an ancient asteroid catastrophe. They tracked down data on a series of asteroids that could possibly have come from a disrupted parent body. Perhaps it was broken up by collisions or tidal forces.
So did the team actually discover the remnants of an asteroid? Well, they named it just in case. They decided on Zhuque (sometimes also called the Vermillion Bird) since Bellaire’s mascot is a cardinal. The name also has mythological roots which is consistent with naming conventions from the IAU Minor Planet Center.
They sent their preliminary results to the advisor. She was very encouraging and also gave them plenty more to chew on to clarify their findings. Then all of a sudden it was time to put an actual poster together and write an abstract. This stage was surreal. The team was a cohesive science team. The advisor seemed to think they might have actually found something. What’s interesting about the discovery is how much of an afterthought it was. They were having a blast just digging around in this area.
Once the poster and abstract were done, it didn’t matter to me if they won because the project had been a success. This team had put a serious scientific effort into a question that interested them all and had a great piece of work to show for it. The full size poster is available, but it’s really big (~26mb).
Other schools also submitted posters and abstracts. They also had great products to show for the months of work. So when the Bellaire team learned that they and 3 other teams were going to present their work to the judges in a video conference format, we were all very pleased. There was a rush of work at the end to build a presentation out of the poster findings, but when the day came what the teams put together for the judges showed just how creative high schoolers can be when asked to do real science. None of these kids were even out of high school yet, but here they were showing off fantastic work. All 4 finalist teams will have their work displayed at a national conference on planetary science. One team would be asked to actually present in person at the National Exploration Science Forum.
The 30 minutes the judges spent in deliberation were very tough for some of the team members. That’s why when the judges decided the Bellaire team had earned the privilege to present their findings they couldn’t contain their glee. I’m so proud of the work the Bellaire team has done on this project. It’s been great for all involved. Each of us learned stuff and got an improved set of science skills from the experience. Even though all I did was essentially keep them on track, I still feel like I was a part of team, even if just as a minor player. I hope Bellaire gets a chance like this again. I look forward to other research project opportunities in the future!
Here are some photos of the presentation to the judges.