Reaching the Stars

Museum educators earn recognition


In mid-August 2020, NASA is sending a new generation rover to Mars as part of the Mars Exploration Program. The mission will search for signs of past microbial life, characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Last summer, NASA created a Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” Challenge and reached out to K-12 students around the country to help name this new robotic scientist. Then they reached out to educators to help pick the winning name and the Museum of Space History’s Julie Bryant was chosen to be one of the judges for the challenge.

Bryant, a New Mexico resident for over a decade and museum educator, was researching for a Science Saturday program at the museum when she saw the call for judges and decided to apply.

“I was excited and honored when I found out I was chosen by NASA to participate,” Bryant said.

Each student who answered the challenge submitted a name and an essay explaining why they chose their name. Judges were sent the first round of essays in late November, and Bryant’s first group of essays numbered about 100.

 “Kids are so creative! And the logical reasoning they presented behind some of the names was amazing – it ranged from Greek and Native American mythology to scientific facts about Mars and space, to the simple, personally appealing names that just ‘sounded neat,’” Bryant said.

Judges were sworn to confidentiality, but Bryant confided that she had a couple of entries that were “really great, I hope they make it to the final cut!” The initial judging criteria included name appropriateness and significance, originality and quality of the essay.

Semi-finalists will be announced by NASA in early January, finalists will be announced in late January, with finalist interviews scheduled for Feb. 7 and the winner is expected to be announced on Feb. 18.

“This is a great opportunity for our students, it gives them a chance to be a part of the space program now and inspire them to be the ones who carry on our future space exploration programs,” Bryant said.

Bryant is not the only Museum of Space History educator to be chosen for participation in NASA programs and statewide science initiatives. In October, Museum Education Director Dave Dooling was appointed to the state Public Education Department’s Math and Science Advisory Council. Dooling, a veteran educator, will serve on the council for four years and work with other council members to improve mathematics and science education throughout the state.

“It is a privilege to be able to serve the students of our state and help ensure that the education process serves them as they prepare to enter college and move on to careers in STEM related fields,” said Dooling. He is also a Solar System Ambassador, which is part of a NASA program that relies on volunteers to help share NASA science and mission discoveries through participation in community and school events. Museum Outreach Coordinator Tony Gondola is a Solar System Ambassador as well.

Year round, museum educators work to hone their expertise in space science, participating in webinars from NASA and other organizations, volunteering to help with various projects like Alamogordo’s First Lego League Engineering Challenge and more.

“It’s important that we continue to learn ourselves so that we can bring the schools and students we serve the most current information about what’s going on in space,” Dooling said. Each year, the museum’s Education Department works with tens of thousands of school children across New Mexico and West Texas to enhance the science programs that their schools provide.

“Our job is to inspire students to work towards careers in STEM related fields, whether they want to be a scientist, an engineer or an astronaut. They are the explorers of the future and we want to give them the tools to get there,” Dooling said. For more information about the museum’s Education Programs, contact them at the phone number below.

The New Mexico Museum of Space History, a Smithsonian Affiliate, is a division of the NM Department of Cultural Affairs. For more information, call 575-437-2840 or toll free 1-877-333-6589 or visit the website at Like us at: