NASA Mission Specialists Inspire Costa Rican Students

    By Bruce Callow

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    Space exploration webinar series was called “JPL Speaks to Costa Rica”

    While COVID-19 causes disruption around the world, it is also acting as a catalyst for innovation in online education. This includes connecting Costa Rican high school and university students with mentors from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) located in Pasadena California.

    Between May and August 2020 students from the University of Costa Rica, the Costa Rica Institute of Technology, and other educational institutions participated in a series of space-themed webinars with scientists and engineers working on some of NASA’s most exciting current missions. 

    Some conferences were led by Costa Ricans including Eric Aguilar, who works on the new Rover Perseverance that is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18, 2021.

    Eric Aguilar is part of the Perseverance Rover team that will collect Martian soil samples and in a later mission return them to Earth.

     Perseverance’s mission is to find microbial life in an ancient Martian lakebed ( Jezero Crater) and to take samples of rock cores that will be brought back to Earth later for further study. Most of the guest speakers gave the conferences from their homes where they work due to COVID 19.

    I had the privilege of collaborating with the Costa Rican chapter of the Society of Women in Space Exploration (SWISE) to organize the series. The Costa Rica Institute of Technology’s publishing house provided e-books of the book I co-wrote, To the Stars: Costa Rica in NASA, which were raffled off to the participants at the end of each webinar.

    We covered a wide range of topics in the webinars, including the upcoming mission to the moon Europa ( Europa Clipper) which has a huge ocean of liquid water below its frozen surface, an ideal place to search for life. That webinar was given by JPL communication specialist Lindsay McLaurin. Students interacted with Sun Kang Matsumoto, a veteran engineer from the  Voyager Interstellar Mission.

     The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft launched in 1977 and have exited our solar system, but are still in contact with Earth and continue to conduct experiments. Another highlight was the webinar with Marc Rayman, JPL’s chief of science and operations who briefed the students on the highly successful Dawn mission to protoplanet Ceres.

    The spacecraft Dawn approaching dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. The mission was led by Marc Rayman and discovered a huge reservoir of liquid water under the planet’s surface.

    SWISE president Natalia Ramírez Vega commented.

    “After the series was completed we conducted a survey on its impact on the participants. We received positive responses, especially from people belonging to underrepresented populations. The goals of the students and their motivation to continue studying had become clearer and stronger because of what they experienced in the webinars.  During the webinars you could see the energy with which each JPL guest speaker answered the student’s questions while guiding them to the best of their abilities.”

    One of the Costa Rican schools that took part in the conference was United World College (UWC) whose student body represents 70 countries. UWC physics teacher had this to say about the series.

    “What I liked about the web conference with Marc Raymen was the combination of detailed knowledge about the missions that he was involved in, combined with his personal life stories. He was able to engage the audience in his talk and raised a lot of questions. I learned a lot.” 

    Adolfo Chaves, coordinator of the Space Systems Engineering Laboratory at TEC Costa Rica was a guest speaker at one of the webinars and is one of the Costa Rica’s leading proponents for the creation of a Costa Rican space agency. He commented. 

    “It is not every day that we have specialists from a laboratory-like JPL with the specific objective of talking to Costa Rican students about space exploration and sharing the passion that it awakens in them. This initiative brought students and other interested people closer to the possibility of speaking with experienced space professionals and demonstrated the ever-growing interest in space exploration in Costa Rica. I am very excited about this interest, and I have high hopes for a future, with our own Costa Rican space agency.”

    “JPL Speaks to Costa Rica” webinar series poster.

    Thanks again to our JPL guest speakers for taking the time to be part of this series. Watch this space for more Costa Rica related space news and webinars.

    Bruce Callow is a  Canadian teacher and co-author of the book To the Stars: Costa Rica in NASA. He does space education outreach work on behalf of NASA.

    Resonance Costa Rica
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