Yuma Elementary School Prepares for Takeoff to Mars

Mar 2, 2018

An elementary school in Yuma is going to Mars.  The kids got their tickets, received a briefing from National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineers, and they’re set to get advice from astronauts on the International Space Station.  Maya Springhawk Robnett of the Arizona Science Desk reports…

H. L. Suverkrup Elementary School is going to Mars.  The entire school—from the principal to the kindergarteners to the sixth-graders and the cleaning crews—got their tickets from NASA.  It’s part of NASA’s InSight Mars Lander mission.  The names of participants will be inscribed on a microchip to be carried around on the lander as it travels the surface of the red planet. 

To familiarize the students with space travel, two NASA engineers are visiting the school.  In classrooms, they show videos of experiments with liquid Nitrogen and a rocket engine they worked on.  Students raise their hands excitedly.

Ian Anchondo, one of the two presenters, deals with parachute testing at NASA.  Anchondo’s family came from Mexico before they moved to El Paso, Texas, and his first language is Spanish.  Being so close to the border, the majority of the students at H. L. Suverkrup are also of Hispanic heritage, and Anchondo says he hoped to send them a message about what they can accomplish.

“Just the way I sound—the way I look.  I know I have an accent; I’ve heard myself in recordings! And I think that when you can tell somebody that you’re from Mexico and you work for NASA and—that, to me, is not a lesson, but it’s an exposure,” Anchondo says. “It’s a fact that…I sound like them and they sound like me.  And they can be in that position.”

"I know I have an accent; I've heard myself in recordings! And I think that when you can tell somebody that you're from Mexico and you work for NASA...that, to me, is not a lesson, but it's an exposure: I sound like them, and they sound like me."

Rosa Obregon, the other aerospace engineer presenting to the students today, says she wanted to convey that no matter what your background, you can succeed if you challenge your limits.

“I noticed that a lot growing up in Corpus Christi,” she says. “A lot of the culture was ‘No you can’t’ attitude.  A lot of my classmates were only allowed to take one Honors class their freshman year because they thought they were going to fail.  Their whole culture, attitude was ‘Play it safe’ instead of challenging them.  Let them find out if they can do something!”

And that lesson, especially coming from a female scientist, resonated with Maria Galvan, a 12-year-old in sixth grade at Suverkrup.

“I thought it was really cool because I have seen Hidden Figures,” Galvan explains.  “Like, somebody almost said, ‘I didn’t know women could do that,’ but they didn’t say ‘women.’  But I liked how they thought through it.” 

Ariel Cibrian, a 6 year old in kindergarten, was just excited about astronauts.

“I like that they get to wear special suits to go outside,” Cibrian says.  When asked what she finds most interesting about space, Cibrian answers, “That there’s no gravity.”

The students have another reason to be excited.  H. L. Suverkrup was chosen from among elementary schools across the nation to have a twenty-minute video conversation with astronauts on the International Space Station. 

Trish Valentin is the principal of the school.  She hopes this experience will make a difference in the futures of her students.

“We’re hoping to inspire our children to look forward to some of those careers and maybe go toward those careers.  Science, technology, engineering, mathematics,” Valentin explains.

"How do you eat in space?"

And the kids at Suverkrup are curious.  They want to know how astronauts eat in space or get into their suits.   12-year-old Maria Galvan is already interested in science, and has put some thought into what question she’d like answered.  “I wanted to ask like—what if the water gets inside the electronics?  Because the water floats,” she says.

Another sixth-grader, 11-year-old Kaiden Montoya, wants to know about a different hazard.

"What if water gets inside the electronics?"

“What happens if something, like, catches on fire inside of the space station?” he asks. “Because it’s like, an enclosed area and you have to put on the suit and then get out, so.”

"How do you put on your suit?"

Lisa Love, a Reading Interventionist at Suverkrup and the author of the school’s application, said connecting the students with the space station felt like a shot in the dark.

“I thought, ‘I don’t even know if they’ll even read past the first sentence with this,’” Love says, “Because I know NASA is a big, huge organization and I could guess there would be thousands of applications, and mine is this little letter from students at a little elementary school in a border town in the corner of the Arizona desert.”

"I could guess there would be thousands of applications, and mine is this little letter from students at a little elementary school in a border town in the corner of the Arizona desert."

NASA did read the application and Suverkrup was chosen.  Love was thrilled.

Not only had she written the application, but Love contacted a friend at Yuma’s NASA hangar to help organize the NASA engineer visit, and she was the one to first suggest the school-wide trip to Mars.  At the time, she’d only been working at Suverkrup for a month.  Her motive behind these efforts was personal; Love says she grew up in a disadvantaged home and space was a bright spot.  She says that’s her goal for the students.

“Yes, we’ll be able to talk to astronauts—and that’s really cool,” she says. “But in the future, what I hope that they’ll remember is that there’s a reason to look up, and there’s a reason to question, and there’s a reason to wonder, and there’s a reason to discover and they can do anything they want to do.  Anything at all.”

"There's a reason to look up, and there's a reason to question, and there's a reason to wonder, and there's a reason to discover and they can do anything they want to do. Anything at all."