When Dr. Robert Ballard was a child he wrote a letter to the scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
"It was like a Santa Claus letter," he said, "but one kind man wrote me back."
One of the scientists at Scripps wrote to Ballard and told him about a scholarship he could apply for. Ballard applied, was accepted and spent one summer going to sea on oceanic ships; an experience he said was the "turning point of my life."
Ballard is constantly trying to recreate the experience one scientist gave him for the thousands of children who are exposed to his work. Ballard is the founder of the JASON Project, a science curriculum available to all teachers that is designed to encourage students' interest in the sciences. Through hands-on experiments and lesson plans, Ballard hopes to inspire children like he was once inspired.
Best known for discovering the RMS Titanic in 1985, Ballard created the JASON Project for the children who would write to him asking how he discovered the famous sunken vessel.
"The idea for JASON came from 16,000 letters I would get from kids," he said. "I had staff whose only job was to respond to people's letters."
THE CREATOR of the JASON Project was in Sterling last week to give a talk about his discovery of the Titanic. Almost 1,000 people came to Dominion High School to hear the scientist speak and about 300 of those people were children.
"It's always a successful event when you have a high kid turnout," Ballard said. "That's who I am after. If they come with their parents, that's great because it builds a conversation between the parent and the student."
For Ballard, the point of events such as the April 4 talk is to help them to understand that science does not live up to the boring reputation it sometimes has, but is actually exciting and fun.
"I want to break the stereotypes," Ballard said. "I want to make them savvy and motivated. [These events] are like putting gas on a fire; it's the pied piper affect."
Both public speaking events and the JASON Project curriculum work with the same principle, if you get students working hands on with science and scientists, you will create more scientists for the future.
"What we are dealing with, what we are talking about, is very intangible," Caleb M. Schutz, president of the JASON Foundation for Education, said. "Through the project we are taking an event or people and systematically exposing them to kids. It provides the persistence needed to get through today's science classes."
The JASON Project, which was named for the mythological Greek adventurer of the same name, uses technology to take students along on explorations and to the far reaches of the planet and the solar system.
"We are teaching real science that is standards based, but we are letting the students have the experience," Schutz said. "This is only the tip of the iceberg. With new technology we have a tremendous opportunity to incorporate it into classrooms."
LAST YEAR, the JASON Project moved its national headquarters to Ashburn in order to make the most of its partnership with National Geographic and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Both agencies help with the curriculum and the larger projects.
More than 1 million students each year are taught using JASON's curriculum and each year JASON's curriculum is centered on a certain theme. It includes a teacher's guide, student's guide, lesson plans and classroom activities that all tie into a multimedia aspect, Schutz said. The curriculum is created to be very teacher friendly.
This past year the theme was "Mysteries of Mars and Earth." Heidi Jaquett is a teacher with FUTURA, a Loudoun County students. She and fellow teacher, Melissa Fye, used the latest JASON curriculum for the 160 students in the program.
"FUTURA is based on high-ordered, critical thinking and it's a research-based program," Jaquett said. "[This curriculum] is an inquiry-based learning program. It's very hands on, which is great for us."
Jaquett said one of the biggest draws for her was the project's interactive nature. As a part of the Mars and Earth curriculum, the students in FUTURA built model rockets and launched them. They learned how to safely land cargo, in their case an egg, to mirror how shuttles land on Mars.
"The program is taking what they interact with every day and applying it to science concepts," Jaquett said. "Each curriculum works with life, Earth and physical sciences so it pulls in all the different types of sciences they learn about in their regular classroom."
Jaquett was able to use the JASON Project curriculum thanks to a grant they received from the Loudoun Education Foundation for supplies.
"The supplies can be expensive so the $450 really helped," she said.
For the final activity, Jaquett's students attended a live telecast by Ballard at the National Geographic Museum about the landings on Mars.
"Those telecasts are providing kids with role models and a real-world connection to what they are learning," she said.
AT THE END of the evening following Ballard's presentation at Dominion High School, Ballard said he was bombarded with children's questions and requests for autographs. Children even followed him outside as he left in order to keep talking to him, he said.
"When you can get a scientist that is getting treated like a baseball player this country has a chance," he said.