While the ultimate field trip might someday be an actual journey to Mars, Boynton Beach Community High School students are taking the next best thing. NASA is giving teams from the school the opportunity to explore Mars by working on specific research projects during the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) missions, set to land on the red planet in January 2004.

The Mars Exploration Student Data Teams (MESDT) project is a unique opportunity to be part of an out-of-this-world experience experiment during the 2003-04 MER missions. Advance studies will prepare the students for participating in the mission when the two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, begin exploring Mars. Teams work with scientists to prepare for rover operations, to analyze data during the mission, and to reach out to others through presentations, articles, and web sites. Teachers will be part of each team and will help students in their investigations of Mars and its geologic history. Students will relay their experiences to other students in their schools and communities and to the public in order to share the excitement of exploring Mars. The Mars Exploration Student Data Team project officially begins with a kick-off teleconference on September 10, 2003 from 5-6 PM EDT.

The MESDT teams are from 24 states plus the District of Columbia and an American school in Bolivia. Boynton Beach Community High School in Boynton Beach, Florida, is one of 51 participating schools selected during a nationwide search to provide students for MESDT. The 51 teams participating in the MESDT program will use data from Mars-orbiting spacecraft to help characterize aspects of Mars from the atmosphere to the surface that affect the rover missions. Two NASA orbiters, Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey, are actively examining the planet. MESDT will help compare orbital data to rover-collected data for “ground truthing,” which means using ground-level observations to verify interpretations of remote observations. There will be frequent interactions with data team members and Mars scientists via distance learning. The two programs will closely complement each other, just as both landed and orbital science teams work closely together in planetary missions.

The Boynton Beach “Tiger” teams will be lead by Erich Landstrom, high school science teacher of the year (2002-03) for the School District of Palm Beach County. Landstrom is also a Solar System Educator for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The goal of the Solar System Educators Program is to inspire America’s students, create learning opportunities, and enlighten inquisitive minds by engaging them in the Solar System exploration efforts conducted by NASA. Educators lead workshops that show teachers how to successfully incorporate NASA materials and research into their classes. Landstrom was selected as Florida’s Educator during a nationwide search in August 2000, while Director of Astronomy Education at the South Florida Science Museum. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Mars Exploration Program’s Mars Public Engagement efforts on behalf of NASA.

Additional information about the MESDT and the MER missions is available online at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov and http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/classroom/students/mer .