What inspired you to work at NASA? How long does it take to travel to Mars?

What if extraterrestrial life was on Mars before the water left? Could you survive on Mars with a spacesuit?

Students from Rio Rancho Public Schools who attended the virtual, weeklong Native American Summer Academy earlier this month rocketed the Google Meet chat box with these and many other questions. The students, ranging in age from kindergarten through high school, were riveted by the story of Aaron Yazzie, a Diné NASA mechanical engineer who is part of the Mars Perseverance Rover project. As a Jet Propulsion Laboratory leader, he helped to design the drill bits that are digging up Red Planet sand and rock, the material that will eventually make its way to Earth for analysis.

Aaron Yazzie’s session came just four days after Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic supersonic space plane zoomed across the New Mexican sky, hung out in outer space for several minutes, reentered into our planet’s atmosphere and touched down safely at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences.

“To all you kids out there — I was once a child with a dream, looking up to the stars,” Branson told CNN. “Now I’m an adult in a spaceship. … If we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”

Those who achieve greatness have the power to transform the lives of children, especially when our students see in the narratives someone who looks like them. I experienced this firsthand with our Summer Academy this year.

When we reached out to Yazzie, he was eager to meet with our Indigenous participants, in part, we learned later, because summer programs motivated him to take his path. They opened doors he never knew were there for him.

The morning after Yazzie shared photos that the rover took, including a selfie and a video of the Integrity Helicopter embarking on its first Martian flight, our students wanted more. We shared the NASA three-minute video as the space vehicle gracefully touched down on Mars on Feb. 18. Unlike for any textbook, lecture or experiment, our students’ excitement to learn was out of this world, all because they suddenly saw complex science as human.

As Yazzie said, “As we reach out to our younger brothers and sisters to help them achieve their dreams, we also need to make sure there is a safe and inclusive place for them in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). A place for them to not only exist, but also to be the best they can be.”

As extraordinary science news inhabits social media, it’s a starry-filled moment for our children to imagine all of the possibilities and potential.

Let’s open doors — and portals — that our students never knew were there for them. Let’s make sure they look up and imagine.

Kelly Pearce, a senior policy fellow with Teach Plus New Mexico, is a K-12 instructional coordinator in Rio Rancho Public Schools.

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