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Fueling the Engines for Mars -- and Beyond

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"What is the atmosphere of Mars mostly composed of?" asked Lyle Tavernier, a ‎NASA Digital Learning Network Coordinator.

"Mostly carbon dioxide," answered a student from Colegio de Todos los Santos in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

"Kramer Middle School, you're next. How many natural satellites are orbiting Mars?" Lyle said.

"There are two satellites on Mars," said a student from Kramer Middle School in Washington, D.C.

"You're both right. Very good!"

These students weren't visiting NASA headquarters, or talking with Lyle in their classrooms. They were on the first-ever international virtual field trip to Mars.

To inspire future astronauts, engineers, and innovators to study and work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) teamed up with NASA to connect students from Argentina, Nicaragua, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington D.C. via Google+ Hangout to learn about the Red Planet.

Our ECA Collaboratory Network, working with NASA's Digital Learning Network™ and the U.S. Embassies in Buenos Aires and Managua, brought these middle school students together for the USA Science and Engineering Festival. During their interactive lesson with NASA experts, the students from around the world shared their thinking on the best location to land a Mars rover, compared and contrasted the Red Planet's geology with Earth's, and watched amazing footage of the Mars Curiosity's first landing. This was the second program of an ongoing virtual exchange among these classrooms.

In addition to the five schools, more than 3,000 online participants, including classrooms and viewing parties, tuned in to the live webcast of the virtual field trip and submitted questions via Twitter. On social media, the Twitter reach for the #MarsFieldTrip program exceeded 79.3 million impressions. The YouTube recording has already received more than triple the number of views.

John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, spoke with the students. He explained how this program is increasing educational exchange opportunities across the Americas as part of President Obama's 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, which aims to strengthen a new generation's ability to reach across borders and solve shared challenges. Mr. Feeley also gave a shout-out to the students from Nicaragua, many of whom also participate in the State Department's English Access Microscholarship Program to learn English language skills in their home country. Despite their school's closures because of ongoing aftershocks from a 6.1 earthquake earlier that month, all 30 Nicaraguan students and four teachers voluntarily attended the event. We were so relieved to hear that they were safe. We're also glad that, despite the seismic activity, the students were excited to participate. I believe some of their passion comes from the prospect of taking part in the first human manned mission to orbit Mars--a goal that President Obama has made for the 2030s.

That's why it's increasingly important that we fuel the engines that propel students' interest in STEM. With more than 60 percent of the world's population under the age of 30, young people are our future problem solvers. By connecting them with other STEM-centric students around the world, we can increase the chances of solving our world's most pressing issues like climate change, environmental security, or public health.

Through this international virtual field trip to Mars, the United States is using every venue--both face-to-face exchange programs, and through new digitally connective technologies--to encourage a new generation of doers to reach across borders and tackle problems that extend beyond their hometowns.

We need everyone to pitch in their ideas. Get ready, because Lyle may call on you next. And then maybe, in 2030, you'll be waving to us from Mars!