UNC Experience Leads to Mars Mission

Artist's rendering of Mars lander

This artist's rendering depicts the INSIGHT Mars lander ready to start gathering data from below the planet's surface.

Photo courtesy of NASA

A summer program can be a way to get the kids out of the house during those long days with "nothing to do," or, if you pick the right one, a summer program can help students shape their future careers as doctors, teachers or even an electrical engineer for NASA.

Stuart Spath, program manager of NASA's INSIGHT Mars lander mission, is living proof that the Frontiers of Science Institute at the University of Northern Colorado is the right kind of summer program.

FSI is a six-week summer program for 25-30 high school juniors and seniors who have shown aptitude in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math.

Founded in 1959 after the launch of Sputnik, the institute is designed to inspire interest in and develop a better understanding of STEM subjects and related careers. There's also a strong focus on building self-confidence and the ability to choose a direction for future academic and professional pursuits.

Spath described FSI as a true turning point for him in his senior year of high school. He was already sure he wanted to be an engineer, but he said it was FSI that helped him to choose electrical engineering as his preferred focus.

"It was very eye-opening," Spath said. "It gave me a chance to sample various types of engineering coursework and zero-in on electrical engineering."

Spath is an engineer at Lockheed Martin in Denver, where he helps design, develop and build interplanetary spacecraft for NASA. He recently became the program manager for the INSIGHT Mars lander mission, set to launch in 2016. INSIGHT stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.

The $425 million project will send a rover to Mars to collect data from below the planet's surface that should allow researchers to make strong inferences about Mars's core as well as those of other planets in our solar system, and how they were formed.

Coincidentally, when Spath's daughter, Melani, attended FSI last summer, she worked on a Mars-related project.

"It was actually totally unrelated, before I became program manager for INSIGHT, but the project she worked on was a thruster study for a Mars lander," Spath said.

In a letter to UNC President Kay Norton, Spath said his daughter underwent a visible transformation after her time at FSI, is now "brimming with newfound confidence" and seems "ready and eager to tackle her college career and beyond." Although Melani hasn't yet made any definitive career decisions, Spath said it was good for her to be exposed to so many professional options.

Lori Ball, FSI program administrator, said exposing students to many different educational and career opportunities is one of the primary goals of the Institute. Graduates of the program have gone on to enter a diverse array of careers as teachers, doctors, engineers and even one submarine captain.

The six-week program, which begins June 17, is packed with activities. Each student is enrolled in three classes and one lecture block; this year's subjects include genetics, sustainable energy, a guest lecture on neuroscience and more.

The students attend classes in the mornings and engage in mentored research in the afternoons. In addition to the classwork, there are seminars from professionals, fieldtrips to exciting and educational places, including Premier Labs and the Colorado University Astrophysics Department, and a four-day trip to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave and more.

"We really put a lot into the six weeks," Ball said. "So they're very busy and they learn a lot."

During the program, participants live and dine in UNC's residence halls, an atmosphere that's designed to encourage a spirit of community. Spath said that although FSI is an academic program, one of his favorite parts of the experience was the camaraderie and the friendships he built there, a sentiment he feels would be echoed by many other FSI alumni.

"The friendships just last a lifetime," Spath said. "I still stay in touch with my FSI friends, even 31 years later."

Ball agreed with Spath, saying that the students grow in personal and social ways, as well as academically, and that's what makes the program special.

"This is our 54th summer," Ball said. "So we must be doing something right."

- Jaidree Braddix

Of Note
According to Frontiers of Science's Lori Ball, Stuart and Melani Spath are one of more than a dozen examples of an FIS participant whose child or children subsequently attended the institute. She said in some cases, whole families, including nieces and nephews, have attended over the course of time.

FIS Website: http://mast.unco.edu/programs/fsi/