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Arizona Students Are Interplanetary Rock Hunters

Students send stones to state university, where mineral makeup and type will be determined. Data is to be compared with Mars findings.

February 15, 2004|Sandy Yang | Associated Press Writer

PHOENIX — Kids: Scientists need your help.

As the 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 to Earth.

Students can contribute to actual Mars research by sending rocks to the university lab, where scientists will figure out the 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 Mars and Earth rocks.

"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 in rocks, with plans to deliver them to ASU.

Lately, 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," 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 Huffaker's students, got the point. He brought in a 4-inch-long purplish rock that he found in his backyard. 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 Maricopa Elementary School fifth-graders to be involved. As the 2002 winners of the Fiesta Bowl Honeywell Aerospace Challenge, the students are aware of news about Mars because they've worked on long-term space projects and visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"Any time 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," she said. "The chance to work at NASA is real to them because we've been there."

The idea that youths 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," Watt said of Christensen, who is also the Mars rover's principal investigator of the mini thermal emissions spectrometer. The device, developed at ASU, looks at a rock's infrared emissions and wavelengths, and determines what they're made of. The laboratory version of the 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 will most likely build up the current rock library. Since Jan. 8, when the program was launched, the university has received about 800 rocks from several countries.

"I expect we'll get several pieces of gravel, and that's fine," Watt said.

More likely, scientists expect rocks "unique from a geological standpoint -- like volcanic rock from a tropical area," 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 two to six inches long. Participants could also 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.

Watt estimated that it would take a couple of weeks for scientists to analyze the rocks, give them a unique catalog number and post them on the website along with the participant's first name, age and city. The program, which doesn't have a deadline yet, is expected to draw thousands of rocks by the end of its run.

"We want to get people excited about Mars and rocks," said Paige Valderrama, assistant director of the ASU Mars Education Program. "We see that with all the rocks we've been receiving."

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