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Lakota youths work with NASA in Hawaii

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - What a difference a phone call makes. When Red Cloud High School teacher Stephen Dacey picked up the phone in late April, he was, "feeling casual." His nonchalance quickly evaporated.

The caller was Mike Comberiate, an employee at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. In a minute, the easily excitable chemistry teacher became - well, excited.

Two weeks later, on May 6, Dacey, and Red Cloud juniors Lawrence Vigil and Sarah Yellow Boy were flying to Hawaii. Their mission - because they decided to accept it - was to conduct real experiments while testing a theory about the rapid growth of Hawaiian rain forests.

Comberiate, affectionately known as "NASA Mike" by the Red Cloud students, runs a program for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) called You Be The Scientist (YBTS). The program promotes teacher efforts to incorporate NASA technology in the classroom

Dacey said Red Cloud's science teachers use the satellite extensively in lesson plans. "The idea of this trip to Hawaii was to get all the teachers and some of the students who are involved in this program to go to the island and prepare lessons" crafted in biology, geology, and chemistry. All the lessons were broadcast live on the Internet May 10, 11 and 12.

"Hopefully, teachers will say, wow! I want this in my school. Then we can get a lot of schools signed on to the same programs and we can start sending data to each other," Dacey said. NASA's hope is that teachers watching the program in their classrooms would see the possibilities NASA provides for lesson plans. Currently, six high schools across the nation are involved. Red Cloud was the second high school to sign on.

John Brewer, an Oglala Lakota science teacher at Red Cloud, enrolled the school in the program in 1998. As an enticement for the program, NASA donated four, high-speed computers and a state-of-the-art uplink to its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). It provides real-time satellite photos and other environmental data, such as worldwide ocean temperatures and jet stream forecasting to meteorologists the world over.

"We're already getting connected with a school in Washington, D.C., so we can send them their weather," Dacey said. "

The specific experiment Vigil and Yellow Boy performed involved the chemical composition of lava rock and why it is conducive for promoting plant life.

"NASA Mike said, "However you want to do it, examine the fertility of lava rock."

So rocks to rainforests was the theme of the week. Why does a seemingly dead lava rock, that comes out of a volcano - spewing black basalt all over the earth - turn into rainforests? Finding the answer was the goal of the Lakota students.

Finding that answer involved pulverizing pieces of lava rock from a 1974 flow and comparing its chemical composition with soil from a 200-year-old rainforest.

"We ran tests for sulfur crystals, which was phenomenal. You don't see that stuff coming out of the ground on the reservation. There were these huge fields that were spewing steam from out of the ground and they were depositing sulfur crystals. The whole area smelled like rotten eggs," the teacher said.

While completing the experiment was important to students, so was having fun. Dacey reported there was ample allowance for hiking, swimming, visiting waterfalls and lying on a beach.