For Billy Hix, associate professor at Motlow College, every day is an anniversary of a great achievement in science and another opportunity to teach. Students attending his STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camps this summer were fortunate enough to share in his excitement and get the ‘inside scoop’ on what NASA calls their grandest mission of the decade—landing the Curiosity rover on the planet Mars.
Hix recently completed the last of the three-day camps, which are paid for by an educational grant. His last class was held just days before the scheduled landing. Excitement for the mission was at its peak as he explained, “I am so proud that I had the chance to prepare my summer STEM students to appreciate the tremendous difficulty of getting to and landing on Mars. If the mission turns out correctly, these students will be in the middle of their college years when we have another grand mission.”
The middle school students experienced a whirlwind of activities at STEM camp. Two days of hands-on experiments, a personal tour of the NASA Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. and a never ending flow of scientific information and fun facts filled every minute they spent together as a group. As Hix joked with his young scientists, “Your brains will swell with all of the new information you are learning. Your heads may get so big we may have to soak them in ice!”
When taking a break or preparing for the next lesson or experiment, Hix quizzed his students, “Tell me one thing you’ve learned?”
Hands flew into the air as one camper replied, “When you mix vinegar with baking soda it drops the heat.”
Another added, “In the same size container, a can of diet coke will float and regular won’t.”
Hix smiled with satisfaction at his ‘swollen heads’ and proceeded to add to their knowledge, “Did you know an astronaut has to go 50 miles in space to earn his or her astronaut wings and did you know it takes three and a half days to get to the moon and nine months to get to Mars?”
Hix, aided by assistants Patrick Stone of Moore County and Karen Hix of Shelbyville, guided the students, in teams of two or three, through a barrage of experiments. They learned how to build a rocket from a two-liter bottle and measure its flying distance. They learned how a can would crush when heated and emerged in ice water if it had just a few drops of liquid in it. One of the most relevant lessons to the Mars mission was how to build a heat shield like those used on spacecrafts. Student teams constructed heat shields that were required to withstand direct flames for three minutes to be deemed successful.
One of the students gave Hix a handwritten letter on the last day of the camp. It read, “I have really enjoyed you as my teacher through my awesome STEM camp adventure. You have taught me so much in this three-day period. I have loved all of the experiments you have done with us. It’s not every day someone meets a guy of your knowledge.”
After the camp and the Mars landing, Hix said, “NASA is a most valuable tool to inspire the next generation, but we all have to work hard to use those tools to motivate the youth to see the joy in the STEM areas. If there is any doubt of the adrenaline rush and passion that will come from work in the STEM area, just look at the joy on the faces of people in mission control as they had confirmation that Curiosity had landed safely.”