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Mars rover aces social networking, but will it inspire study of science?

The rover Curiosity, with nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, had a strong Internet presence even before its launch to Mars. Scientists hope this will lead to more student interest in science – and more funding.

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“It’s like the greatest video game in the world, you’re dealing with an avatar on another planet, and one that’s really there,” says Hodges about the mobile Mars laboratory’s appeal.

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But there are still questions about whether surging interest in space will translate to more science and engineering students and, perhaps more important, increase funding for science education.

When polled about space, many people react by saying, “I love it; I don’t want to spend any money on it,” says space historian David Portree, manager of the Regional Planetary Information Facility at the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

School budget cuts in states around the country hurt science education, and have resulted in layoffs of younger teachers who might be best able and most interested in using NASA’s new tools, says Mr. Portree. In this year’s “State of State Science Standards” report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, the majority of states earned Ds or Fs, indicating that in most of the country, students aren’t receiving the basic education needed to do scientific work.

Portree doesn’t expect to see people clamoring in the streets for more money for scientific research anytime soon, but he does say that NASA’s current outreach efforts and the availability of beautiful images from space have helped ensure that the “planetary science community right now is healthier than it's ever been before, even during Apollo.” 

Those Apollo missions are famous for inspiring people to think of space as possible to explore – about 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” on the moon. But images were much fuzzier then, and much of the investment in scientific education was spurred on more by cold war fears about the Soviets, especially after the 1957 Sputnik launch, than by a desire to explore space.

And beyond Apollo, many – Portree included – were influenced by science fiction, which painted a clearer image of space’s potential than could technology at the time. Now, technological advances allow all to see high-definition images beamed from Mars, and it’s possible to use tools set up by JPL to see what the rover sees.

It’s part of the continuing evolution in the way NASA interacts with the public, according to Mr. Seidel. It’s important for kids to see that there are real people, including one with a famous mohawk, that are actually maneuvering machines in space.

Part of NASA’s outreach has involved creating lesson plans for teachers, as well as desktop and mobile apps that allow people to interact with the rover and other devices. But Seidel also says this mission has captivated the public simply by addressing a fascinating question: Can we find traces of other life out there in the universe?

By addressing a question like that – and with a strong social outreach that takes advantage of modern communication technology, including sending tweets from the rover – “we’re talking to people in a way that they can actually hear us,” Seidel says.

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