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Black holes, Mars missions and STEM, oh my! NASA science chief speaks at local girls’ school

NASA’s chief of science, Ellen Stofan (right), was invited to speak to the girls at Foxcroft school in Middleburg Jan. 9 by the school’s new head, Catherine McGehee (left). Stofan shared her experience with NASA as well as her love of science and NASA’s upcoming projects. Times-Mirror/Anna Harris
NASA's Chief of Science Ellen Stofan spoke at Foxcroft's School for Girls in Middleburg Jan. 9, pulling girls in with talk of black holes and manned missions to Mars.

For Stofan, exploring the final frontier and the home planet is a passion she wants to extend to youth. She makes a concerted effort to speak to students at least once a month.

Foxcroft was her first school for 2015.

Foxcroft's new head, Catherine McGehee, met Stofan in Richmond before she was officially instated at the school. She asked the scientist if she would speak to the girls.

Stofan explained the mission of NASA to students. The exploration of the solar system informs humanity's perception of who they are in the universe as a planet and a species.

Scientists can learn more about Earth by comparing it to planets and bodies in the universe with compositions similar to the blue home.

For a planet or moon to be worth studying, it has to posses three key ingredients scientists have identified for the existence of life: water, energy (like lightening or volcanoes) and time for life to evolve and grow.

Other means for life to happen may exist, but these three are fundamentals based on science's understanding of Earth, the only frame of reference humans have.

“They're the rightest ingredients we know,” Stofan said.

Mars is the most likely of the known planets to be useful for science to study for these purposes.

To learn more about ourselves as a species and a planet in the universe's neighborhood, Stofan believes a manned mission to Mars is imperative.

Currently, the U.S. has two rovers monitoring Mars' surface. But data collection and land coverage is slow using robots. The Opportunity rover has been monitoring the planet for 20 years and only covered 12.4 miles, or 20 kilometers.

Humans can do more and cover more ground in a shorter time, looking at samples and discussing their significance more quickly.

According to NASA's website, scientists are working on capabilities to send humans to an asteroid by 2025, with Mars following soon after in the 2030's.
Stofan told the girls about NASA's One Year Crew mission, sending two astronauts to the International Space Station for an entire year rather than the standard six months.

U.S. space veteran Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko of Russia will be sent up in the spring.

Scientists on the ground will monitor how space changes the human body and genetics over time. Kelly's identical twin brother, Mark, agreed to help in the study. He'll be monitored on Earth as a control group, so NASA can better understand space's effects on humans by comparing Mark Kelly against his twin in space.

Particularly close to Stofan's heart is the subject of women in the field of science and technology. Speaking to a group of young women in a school that stresses science, technology, engineering and math was an opportunity for Stofan to encourage them to stay in the field if it's what they love.

NASA loves diversity, she said, because it gives more perspectives and points of view for creative problem solving, abstract thinking and new skill sets.

Creativity is essential in science, which is why Stofan prefers the term STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) to STEM.

“[NASA's diversity] is hugely better than when it started out,” said Stofan. “[But] you visibly see women dropping out [of the field] as time goes on.”
And it's not a uniquely U.S. problem. In her interactions with scientists around the world, Stofan has seen the problem of fewer women in STEM fields and the dropout rate across the board.

Middle school female students don't pursue science and engineering outlets in high school. High school girls who expressed interest in science don't study for science degrees in college. College graduates with STEM degrees drop out of the fields over time. Research shows young women dropping out of the pipeline at every step.

A way to keep girls interested, she said, is to teach them how the field is relevant. So the questions is, how do places like Foxcroft do that?

“How do we approach girls in a way that they see science as fun,” Stofan said.

Foxcroft has encouraged its girls by making as many opportunities available as possible. Whether it's classes, workshops or presentations from female scientists from NASA, Foxcroft's girls are being given the resources and encouragement they need for success in the field of science.

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