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The Student Planetary Investigator (PI) Program was created by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Space Department Education and Public Outreach office with support from NASA mission and instrument science and engineering teams.

The Student PI program provides high school and undergraduate students with authentic research experiences in the classroom using NASA data. The program is free, open to students and their teachers nationwide, is conducted via distance learning technologies and is designed to provide maximum flexibility for student teams. Live classroom sessions are mostly conducted during after school hours and sessions are archived for teams that wish to watch at alternate times. Students communicate directly with science team members and peers through an online bulletin board system. Currently students may choose to work with curriculum and data sets from Mercury, Mars, or the Moon as they work toward developing their own hypotheses and research projects. Capstone projects include presenting research to fellow student researchers and NASA scientists across the country.

Exploring the Moon

The inaugural Student PI Program focuses on the Mini-RF instrument. Mini-RF, which stands for Miniature Radio Frequency, is a radar instrument orbiting the moon on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. It is mapping the lunar poles, searching for water ice and demonstrating new communications technologies. What it finds will support future missions to the Moon. Student PI participants make authentic contributions to this effort.

For the Mini-RF Student PI program, students (under mentor guidance) join the science team in analyzing real Mini-RF data, using the same software and techniques the mission scientists use. Students develop hypothesis and projects based on data analysis, later presenting their work for peer and science team review.

Exploring Mercury

MESSENGER is the first spacecraft since Mariner 10 to visit the closest planet to the sun in more than 30 years. As scientists investigate key questions about Mercury’s density, its geologic history, magnetic field, core, the unusual materials at Mercury’s poles and volatiles found on the surface, students participating in the Student PI program will add to the body of data by performing additional research on any one of these topics. With the help of science mentors, students will be able to conduct research on images and surface features that, in some cases, have never been viewed by any person before.

Exploring Mars

Students search for clues of water and piece together the history of the Red Planet under the guidance and mentorship of NASA's CRISM science team. CRISM, an imaging spectrometer launched in August 2005, is one of six science experiments on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) which takes measurements of both the surface and the atmosphere of Mars, creating images of the Martian terrain and its minerals for study. Students work with their teacher mentors and scientists to analyze this Martian mineral data, make hypotheses and submit and defend proposals to peers and science team members via distance learning technologies. The Student PI Mars program is designed from experience gained through the Mars Exploration Student Data Teams (MESDT) program that was conceived of by Arizona State University's Mars Education Program in 2005. MESDT operates with the support of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Project Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), and the CRISM science team which bears responsibility for administering and delivering the program. A formal evaluation reported that MESDT "captures students' interest, generates excitement, offers unique opportunities to research 'real world' science, encourages teamwork and develops skill sets that serve students well in STEM careers. It offers students intensive, meaningful and repeated exposure to NASA mission-related science over an entire school year. This intensity and the diversity of experiences have resulted in lasting effects on student participants including 'changing the course of their lives.

About APL Education and Public Outreach

The APL Space Department Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) office strives to excite and inspire the next generation of explorers by creating hands-on, mind on learning experiences. From the Sun to Pluto, APL is engineering the future of space exploration – examining Earth’s near-space environment, the Sun, planetary bodies and the outer solar system.

The E/PO office provides unique opportunities for students to share in APL's current missions for NASA. The E/PO office offers a unique glimpse into the Laboratory’s “end-to-end” approach to mission design and execution. APL designs, manages, fabricates, integrates, tests and operates interplanetary space and Earth science missions and instruments. The Space Department also tackles the critical challenge of capturing mission and instrument data and analyzing its content to create new scientific findings. Since 1959, APL engineers and scientists have designed, built, and launched 64 spacecraft and more than 150 instruments.

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