HALTOM CITY (CBSDFW.COM) – When the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, it jump-started the teaching of science and astronomy in high school classrooms. And when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon in 1969, it inspired a new generation of teenagers to think about space.

NASA recently grabbed the nation’s attention again with its Curiosity rover, currently at the start of a two-year mission to explore Mars and find out if life has ever existed on the Red Planet. Last week, the rover took pictures of what looked like an old stream bed, possible evidence that water once flowed on the planet’s surface.

The Curiosity rover is about the size of a Mini Cooper. After its dramatic landing on Mars in early August, NASA’s website and Facebook page for the rover mission have earned a dramatically increased following. High school teachers across the country are seizing on the interest to bring astronomy and Mars into the classroom.

One such teacher is Jason Bair of Haltom High School in Haltom City. Students in his third period astronomy class made their own Mars landscape out of paper. So, although Mars may be 60 million miles away from Earth, it was temporarily relocated to the back of Bair’s classroom. Students also outfitted their own rover, a remote-controlled toy Jeep with an iPhone attached. Using the Skype app, the iPhone streamed a “mission” on the paper landscape onto a projector in the front of the classroom.

Students took turns driving the toy rover on the recreated landscape — complete with a colony and water-processing plant — while classmates made observations about what was captured by the iPhone. Observation is the key to all good science. This was basically an exercise to show how the Mars mission works, and have students take note of what the camera showed.

Of course, in the real Mars mission, it takes just over 20 minutes for NASA engineers to get a message to Curiosity.

“It’s similar to Earth in a lot of ways, but there are so many giant canyons and mountains and landscaping,” said high school student Zach Hock. “It is very interesting.”

Bair has been teaching at Haltom High School for seven years. He was quick to take advantage when his students expressed even the slightest bit of curiosity in Curiosity. “Since it was in the news and it was interesting to the students,” Bair said, “I came up with the idea to have them try to be able to simulate some of that for themselves in the classroom.”

The real mission (60 million miles away) and the classroom assignment (located much closer to home) have both sparked new thought in these high school students. Could there be life elsewhere in the universe? That question has Bair’s pupils looking beyond their own world. “Mars and Venus are my favorite planets, and it’s really cool that we actually have a robot on Mars,” said student Siara Kinsey.

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