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NASA scientists, Native educators and students share star knowledge

PASADENA, Calif. - For a lot of young people, science is a subject they'd rather skip. Intimidating and just plain disconnected from their daily lives, science can seem especially forbidding for children in traditionally under-served minority groups.

Astrophysics, astronomy, engineering applications for space exploration? The Outer Planets/Solar Probe Project? Gee. Sorry, can't relate.

But the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is working hard to change all that. Their public educational outreach programs extend to inner city schools and rural schools with high numbers of minority students.

Special workshops, conferences and internships bring NASA scientists and science educators face to face with students who would normally never have the chance to learn about the cutting edge of space exploration.

Designed to be interactive, informative and fun, NASA programs are turning thousands of youngsters onto the fact that science isn't just for eggheads after all.

But one project, From the Sun to the Star Nations, is turning out to be a two-way educational street for tribes and scientists. For more than a year, the project has brought together scientists and educators from NASA/JPL and educators and elders from the Lakota, Din? and the Ajachemem tribe of Southern California to discover and teach the common scientific ideas the two groups share.

From the Sun to the Star Nations is a many-pronged program. Classes are available for elementary and high school students. NASA/JPL scientists and educators give seminars at conferences such as the Earth Circles Environmental Conference, Generations Youth Leadership Conference and the Young Din? Men's Leadership Conference.

College internships combine actual scientific research at JPL with training in educational outreach so young people can take the knowledge home to their people. There is a concerted effort to reach Native educators as well.

From the Sun to the Star Nations programs aren't just about NASA scientists teaching what they know. There is as much focus on the ancient star knowledge and legends of the tribes. The programs integrate the old and the new in ways that validate both understandings.

Richard Shope, NASA/JPL education and public outreach coordinator for the Outer Planets/Solar Probe Project, points out that astronomy has always been a part of Native cultures.

The star knowledge - the science of the tribes, if you will - was communicated in legend, song and ceremony. Embedded in oral tradition, the star knowledge of the Lakota, Din? and Ajachemem tribes is intuitive, experiential and metaphorical.

It would be hard to build a spaceship via these communications, Shope says . But it is viable scientific knowledge being communicated just the same.

The Din? say that everything started off in a mist, Shope says. Well, everything started off in a hydrogen gas cloud. That's as close to a mist as you're going to get.

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By having their own traditions taught in classes, students are validated in their own culture and thus can explore new ideas from a place of power. They are given the example that knowledge has many doorways and many languages and that they are free to incorporate all of them in their lives.

Hazel James Tohe, a Din? field coordinator for NASA/JPL, says one of the reasons she is so excited about the program is that it not only brings scientific knowledge to the children, in many cases it is the only vehicle for learning the star knowledge of their own people.

Right now our people don't know the star knowledge, so they are kind of lost souls, Tohe says. But if they connect with nature and the universe and the stars and the songs and the stories that go with it ... if they were even to just know a small piece of it, that can tremendously help an individual become more focused on the earth and be more productive in their life in a good way.

In the Din? tradition, a person has to have star knowledge to become a leader. Tohe says she is interested in tracking students who participate in From the Sun to The Star Nations programs to see what kind of leadership roles they take in the future.

Talking with college students who participated in summer internships at JPL, it is obvious they have every intention of making the best of both worlds.

Corrina Sutter, a Navajo student introduced to the program through classes at Greyhills Academy in Tuba City, Ariz., attended a three-week summer internship last year and a two-month internship at JPL this summer. An electrical engineering major at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, she worked part time in JPL's measurement technology center, building a Lab View Base Program for solid-state power amplifiers to be used in future missions.

Participating in the JPL program is awesome, Sutter says. My eyes have been opened to see the possibilities of where getting an education can take you. You see people there that are just regular people and they're sending things into space and they're exploring things thousands and thousands of miles away.

It's an eye-opener seeing that anything is possible.

Sutter says one day she wants to go home and teach what she has learned to her people.

Geri Henry, a Navajo education major from Chinle, Ariz., focused on outreach educational training during this year's summer internship. Joining Shope and other NASA educators in teaching classes around the Los Angeles area, she admits she was initially afraid of having to talk about advanced science.

But, after seeing how the program relates first to Native knowledge and culture, using it to springboard to more modern ideas, she soon felt more comfortable.

To be able to look at both sides of the story as a person who has been involved in an actual science laboratory and also a part of the Navajo Nation, to be able to bring that together and to give both sides a better understanding of the other ... would be very beneficial for kids, Henry says. On the reservation they are limited to the kinds of science that they are approached with. But once NASA gets involved, they have all these different activities and a new type of thinking rather than sitting there reading out of a book.

That's what the students need to have a whole new world of science.