Posts Tagged ‘JPL’

Test site 1

Site 1 for testing biological soil crusts in the Mojave Desert

I’m in the Mojave Desert with a group of astrobiologists from NASA Ames, JPL, and the California State University system, along with student teachers in the Spaceward Bound program.

Planning samples-site 1

Rakesh Mogul, Chris McKay, and Parag Vaishampayan

Today, March 19, 2012 we officially began the main activity of this field research: collecting samples of biological soil crusts. We hope our research is on the cusp of crusty research . . . or something like that. We have two questions: First, what are the components and abundances of crusts in various locations; and second, what causes these crusts to change density from site to site? We discussed how to approach these questions on Sunday night and decided on an experimental procedure. Dr. Rakesh Mogul first led us in an activity on assigning planetary protection protocols to various types of space missions as a way of looking at the variables and possibilities of contamination. Then we got down to business on the study itself. We decided to sample three locations along Kelbaker Road, which heads east from Baker across the Mojave National Preserve to Kelso Depot. We brought with us sampling tools and equipment, including a field handheld ATP analyzer and collection tubes.

Photographing site 1

Photographing Site 1 location A

We collected after breakfast on a cool morning. The wind had calmed down from the night before and it looked to be a beautiful day as we loaded the vans and headed out. We stopped first at a site about five miles east of Baker which had been scouted out earlier. This site had an intermediate or average amount of biological soil crusts (BSC). Chris McKay described the general goals at each site, and Rakesh worked through the procedures as we divided up tasks.

We had several things we needed to do: First, locate an origin point with an average amount of soil crust and lay down a frame and grid aligned to the compass and its GPS coordinates recorded. Then we set up a vertical tripod and took photos of the location. All of this was to allow for determining the density of the crust – how many of the grid squares were covered.

Second, Rakesh and some of the teachers collected samples to test for ATP using a handheld analyzer. This wound up being a slow procedure and took some

Sampling ATP at site 1

Sampling ATP at Site 1

Third, Dr. Parag Vaishampayan of JPL collected samples near the grid, both of crust and non-crust areas, that we would use to extract the DNA and perform polymerase chain reaction (PCR) procedures to increase the DNA for testing (this would be done back at the Desert Station lab). We also collected soil samples to analyze chemically. At each location, we also sampled four other locations, each randomly selected using GPS coordinates in an array around the original location.

Collecting soil samples

Collecting soil samples at Site 1

With all this done and samples labeled and stored, we moved on down the road to the second site, this one with a dense growth of BSC. We ate lunch, then followed the same procedure to collect samples at five locations at the site. Since the crust was so dense, we had to be very careful not to step on any areas unless there was a wash or stream without crust.

Site 2 sample square

Sample grid at Site 2

Site 2 dense crust

Dense, mature soil crust at Site 2

We then loaded up again and travelled back through Baker to our third site about two miles west of town across the road from Silver Lake. Here, the soil was very poor in soil crusts – we found a few small spots about the size of a quarter coin, all surrounding small puddles where organic matter and water had ponded. The BSC was much lighter in color and much sparser. We followed the same procedures, setting up grids, collecting samples, testing ATP, etc.

Site 3

Site 3 near Baker, CA.

Collection site 2

Collection Site 2

By then the afternoon had worn on and it was time to head back to the Zzyzx station. As soon as we got there our math wizards started setting up statistical searches and crunching the numbers. Tomorrow we’ll do the laboratory tests and prepare the samples by extracting DNA, sorting the soil, and testing the soil chemistry. We hope our results will be worthy of publication in their own right, as well as point to future ideas and techniques for studying life on other planets.

Chris McKay at Site 3

Chris McKay at Site 3

ATP at site 3

ATP sampling at Site 3

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If you have read the previous post you might be wondering what an Applied Technology College is doing creating a science history project. This post is to describe who we are and why we’re doing this.

MATC logo

MATC logo

 MATC Programs:

   Mountainland Applied Technology College (MATC) is one of nine regional campuses of the Utah College of Applied Technology (UCAT) and is part of the state’s post-secondary education system. Our mandate is to provide vocational, non-credit certificate programs such as Medical Assisting, Business, IT, Dental Assisting, and Cosmetology. The Media Design Technology program is set up to provide hands-on, project-based training to both high school and adult students in graphic design with Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Dreamweaver, Flash, Premiere, and Director; 3D modeling and animation with Daz 3D Bryce and Carrara and Autodesk Maya; video production with Apple Final Cut Studio; and more. Students join the class in an open-entry, open-exit format and finish the program with the software, design, and project management skills they need to secure a job in media design.

Mountainland Applied Technology College

Mountainland Applied Technology College


MATC Students:

   In order to train them in project management and leadership, we have the students do at least one large-scale group project where they must follow the entire multimedia development process of idea formation, planning, design, content creation, editing, testing, and deploying their project. In the past groups have worked on many types of projects. In 2003-2004, MATC students were chosen by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to be part of the Mars Exploration Student Data Team project (MESDT) 


Students learned how to use the NASA Unix server to download up-to-date data on Mars’ weather conditions from the Mars Global Surveyor probe, then analyze that data to predict upcoming dust storms and cold fronts. Our students were the only group that was not a science class; instead of merely reporting on the weather, their task was to take the data and turn it into media that could be displayed and presented visually, such as how a December 2003 dust storm bloomed and spread over the surface. They downloaded accurate 3D altitude data of Mars and turned it into 3D animations of the rover landing sites.

Gusev Crater on Mars

Gusev Crater on Mars

Several students attended a final project symposium at Arizona State University to present their graphics and animations. This experience taught us the essential role of media designers in presenting scientific data and their place in the citizen science movement. As their instructor, I had the privilege of attending the 35th Annual Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference in Houston, Texas in 2004 to present how to get actual NASA data into the hands of students and what to have them do with it. 

AM to FM project:

   In the 2004-2005 school year we began work on a new project: to document and preserve the history of AM radio stations and disc jockeys in Utah during the 1960s and 1970s. We were approached by a local television producer to help film and edit a two-hour documentary to be aired on Utah’s main PBS station, KUED in Salt Lake City. We planned and researched the history of radio, then put together a radio reunion dinner in November, 2004 and invited all the former and current DJs we could find. 16 DJs attended as well as many local community members. We divided the DJs into groups by which stations they worked at and took them into side rooms with lights and cameras and interviewed them in the form of panel discussions. Then over the next two years we transcribed, captured, wrote scripts, edited, and tested the video until it was of sufficient quality to be broadcast by PBS. The final video, titled “AM to FM: Three Decades of Radio in Utah” aired on KUED twice in January, 2007 and again in July, complete with closed captioning. We also mastered the video into DVD format and sold enough copies to pay for much of the project costs.

AM to FM video segments

AM to FM video segments

   The program had excellent reviews, and we were able to collaborate with audio and video students at Utah Valley University and with professionals. MATC students worked on all stages of the project, from pre-production to filming to editing to marketing and gained invaluable professional experience along the way.

   Best of all, we preserved a slice of Utah’s history by digitizing old station air checks and jingles and scanning hundreds of music surveys and other documents. Our interviews of the DJs were marvelous, and one of them has already passed away since his interview. We have preserved a unique story that would have been lost forever. This experience has also given us the necessary expertise to lead an even more ambitious project: The Elements Unearthed.

AM to FM advertisement

AM to FM advertisement

 Qualifications of David V. Black: Early Teaching Career

   As the lead instructor for the Media Design program at MATC, I have 20 years of teaching experience at the high school and college levels. I began my teaching career with a teaching degree at San Jose State University in California in 1990 and began teaching that fall at a small start-up high school in the Sierra Nevada foothills called Tioga High School in Groveland, only 30 miles west of Yosemite National Park. We had only 40 students that first year, and I taught six different subjects including computer applications, world history, biology, and art. While there I developed courses in chemistry, Earth science, photography, and other subjects. I first learned how students can be motivated to learn a subject if they create their own content through a project my chemistry students completed on organic molecules using Hypercard, one of the first multimedia authoring programs. They were to put together a hypercard stack that would teach the other students about their assigned organic groups (such as esters or alkanes) using images, text, interactivity, and to even include a quiz or game at the end to test the audience’s knowledge. Students started asking to come in at lunch to the computer lab so they could work on the project – a level of motivation I had never seen before. Since then I have involved my students in activities that allow them to use inquiry in the classroom and share what they have learned with others.

Juab High School students

Juab High School students

   My second teaching position was at Juab High School in Nephi, Utah where I taught chemistry, physics, photography, earth science, and math classes. Chemistry and physics students researched the chemical elements, developed hypercard stacks to teach others of them, then developed demonstrations and short lesson plans to present to their classmates, who critiqued their teaching. They then had to revise their lessons and present them to their parents and the public at an annual back-to-school science night. The advanced Chemistry II and physics students took their lessons on the road once per month and presented them to classes at Nephi and Mona Elementary Schools. They would take the Van de Graaf generator and teach about static electricity, or electromagnets and teach concepts of magnetism. All their lessons were coordinated with the teachers at the schools to fit into their curricula at the appropriate time and level during the year. These programs were very well received by the elementary students, by the public, and by my students. Their general level of knowledge and enthusiasm were much higher than if they had merely learned by rote or even by lock-step labs.

NASA Educational Programs:

   I have also had the privilege of working with NASA as part of the NASA Educators Workshop (NEW) program in 1998. I was selected to attend a two-week all-expenses-paid workshop at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where I met project sciences, education and public outreach coordinators, and practiced NASA lesson materials which I brought back to my classroom. Wanting to stay involved in NASA educational programs, I applied to be a NASA/JPL Solar System Educator in 2000 and received additional training each year at JPL from project scientists and education specialists, then took back what I had learned and trained over 100 other teachers each year, for a total of about 500 teachers over four years of participation.

David Black in clean suit

David Black in clean suit


   In 2001 I was invited to a launch conference for educators at Cape Canaveral in Florida for the launch of the Mars 2001 Odyssey space probe. In 2002 I was selected to be the Educator Facilitator for the summer workshop (now called the NASA Explorer Schools program).


I helped with participant transportation, housing, meals, event planning, tours, and presenting lesson plans. I organized tours to Dryden Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, to the Deep Space Network complex at Goldstone in Fort Irwin, to the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and to Caltech for the 25 participants who were from around the country. The following two years I continued as Educator Facilitator, planning and leading three more workshops for JPL. Through these experiences I have gained expertise in inquiry-based learning and student-created content.

Mars topographic activity

Mars topographic activity

   Recently, I have published an article in the November, 2008 edition of SchoolArts Magazine entitled “Virtual Self-Expression” about how students at MATC are using 3D modeling to create artistic scenes. I try to blend many subject areas (art, architecture, history, physics, chemistry, geography, math, etc.) in with my multimedia courses, as I am a firm believer that courses and subjects should be integrated if we are ever to engage our students and prepare them for life.

Fellowship at the Chemical Heritage Foundation; Philadelphia, PA.

   This expertise will be used to good advantage for The Elements Unearthed. My passion for the physical sciences, for history, and my skills in media design will come together to build a worthy program that will involve students and the public from around the country, starting here in Utah. As part of the planning and background research for this project, I have been named as the Societe de Chimie Industrielle (American Section) Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia for 2008-09.


   As part of my fellowship, I will be in residence at CHF conducting research on the history of chemistry and the elements through the Greek and Medieval periods as well as creating accurate 3D models of laboratory equipment and re-creating the labs of alchemists and chemists to produce animations for the video podcasts. Ultimately this research will form the basis for the first segment of a six part mini-series that will compile the footage and interviews we create for the podcast episodes to tell the complete story of how the elements were unearthed and how we use them today.

Why do a project about the elements?

   The Elements Unearthed is the culmination of over 15 years of planning. As a teacher of chemistry, I have often wanted a comprehensive, in-depth source of information about where the elements come from, how they are mined, refined, etc. Next week we will go into more detail about the need and the audience for this project, but suffice it to say that the need is deep and critical; my students and I are in a unique position of knowledge and expertise to fulfill that need. Simply put, we will do this project because no one else can and because it is desperately needed. All of our past projects have prepared us to be in the right place and time with the right technology, knowledge, and skills to build an excellent program and to provide leadership and direction to the collaborating teams. All that remains now is to gain your support as participants or as funding agencies and a lot of hard work to make this plan a reality. This is not a pipe dream. We know how much work this will take, but it will be a worthwhile journey getting there and the benefits will be incalculable. 

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