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Students and educators across northern Santa Barbara County have a unique opportunity to teach, learn and witness history this week, as NASA, JPL and Vandenberg Air Force Base prepare for their historic May 5 mission to Mars — the first-ever interplanetary mission launched from the West Coast.

Tapping into the enthusiasm and energy surrounding the launch, late last month NASA scientists and engineers launched a statewide tour to bring family-friendly science activities, exhibits and public talks about the InSight mission to children, teachers and parents across California. Partnering with a handful of local groups, the Mars InSight Roadshow, a traveling tour explaining the science behind the mission, will make stops in Lompoc and Santa Maria this week. 

"We’ve got an interplanetary space launch – which we don’t do too often – so this is a great opportunity for educators to talk and interact with the scientists," said Tom Stevens, technical director of the 30th Launch Group and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) coordinator for Vandenberg. 

Assuming the volunteer role of STEM coordinator in 2012, Stevens spent part of the last six years working to connect educational and co-curricular aspects of the base with local schools and other agencies. Calling the launch a "unique opportunity to get different groups of people together," Stevens said he has focused on promoting two events to Lompoc schools and Vandenberg residents — a May 2 Roadshow stop at the Dick DeWees Community and Senior Center, and a May 3 public talk at the Lompoc Public Library.  

"It’s a great opportunity for [students] and educators in the local area," Stevens said. "NASA [and] JPL will bring the spacecraft and launch perspective, and people from base will be able to bring different perspectives, as well. You have a melting pot for discussion."

In recognition of the launch, Hancock College's Friday Night Science, the annual science education and outreach event, has expanded into a weeklong celebration of the red planet. Dubbed "Mars Week" by organizers, the four-day event offers film screenings, exhibits and lectures at the school's Lompoc Valley and Santa Maria campuses.

"This started out with NASA and JPL contacting Hancock saying they ... were hoping to come May 3 or 4 to promote [the InSight launch,]" said Linda Metaxas, physics professor and chair of the Life and Physical Sciences Department. "We were so delighted to have them come and present things, that it's grown into something we now call 'Mars Week.'"

Richard Mahon, a Mars Week organizer and one of the college's Academic Affairs deans, said the once-in-a-lifetime event extends the opportunity for engaging and informative events outside of a traditional classroom setting. All events — including a lecture and presentation by James Green, the former head of NASA's Planetary Sciences division, and talk by InSight scientists — are open to the public.

"The most grand science experiments are still the work of individual men and women," Mahon said. "Many of the people connected with this next step as human beings — going into space — will be on our campus as our guests. [Community members] will be able to meet and interact with the people who are planning this event."

"This is not just a private little launch," added Metaxas, "it's cutting-edge science. We want the community to know about it — and take interest in it — in advance."

Mahon hopes the weeklong event, which culminates with the annual Friday Night Science program, will help students link their classroom lessons with the landmark event unfolding in their backyard.

"A fundamental part of a good education is not just what happens in a classroom, it's also the co-curricular things that happen outside [of it,]" he said. "It helps students see the bridge between what they're learning and other pathways they might want to pursue."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.