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State students build Mars models

Fifth-graders from four school districts work to complete their habitats at Friday’s “Mars mission project” at Cannon Air Force Base. The students were at the base to learn how life on Mars might be in the future. CNJ photo: Eric Kluth.

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Five months of hard work showed Friday as elementary students from four school districts helped build a model of what a base on Mars might look like.

Cheryl Cunningham, a fifth grade teacher at Cameo Elementary in Clovis, helped supervise a group of students from Cameo, Barry and Mesa elementary schools as they worked together to assemble their pre-designed strips of plastic into one of several dozen self-contained inflatable “mini-habitats” inside a vacant hangar at Cannon Air Force Base.

“These guys have only communicated via e-mail and phone until today,” Cunningham said. “It was a lot of fun, and we had to learn a lot about Mars.”

Friday’s program at Cannon is one of four sponsored statewide by the Air Force Research Laboratory for elementary school students. Students came from Clovis, Roswell, Santa Rosa and Hagerman to a program intended by the Air Force to introduce young students to potential careers in science, engineering and technology.

“We’ve been involved in this at Clovis for three years,” said Clovis Schools’ Superintendent Neil Nuttall. “We used to do this in Albuquerque at Kirtland Air Force Base, and we had teachers going there who said, ‘You know, we need to bring this to Clovis,’ and we did.”

Airmen and officers helped teachers work with their students and answer questions. Teachers said students became very quiet as they passed through the gate guarded by armed military personnel, and Nuttall said the technical assistance provided by Cannon has been invaluable.

“I don’t know if you could go anyplace else in the United States to have an Air Force base give us two hangars and have the level of cooperation they’ve given us,” Nuttall said.

Ronda Cole, who in civilian life is a math teacher at Rio Rancho High School, dressed up in a flight suit as “Commander Cole” to help students and staff accomplish the project.

“What we’re trying to do is to get students excited about math, science and engineering,” Cole said. “We’re facing a real shortage of people in those fields. If we can catch them at the fifth grade level and get them excited about it, our concept is to get kids interested and keep them interested.”

First Lt. Mark Pombert of the 27th Contracting Squadron said he enjoyed being the chief liaison between the school and the base.

“From a military point of view, you don’t get to have daily interaction with students on a regular basis in most jobs. It’s a nice took to explain the Air Force for a new generation,” Pombert said.

Aliya Moreno of Cameo Elementary said she enjoyed her study of Mars.

“Someday we may have to move because the earth may be polluted and we may need another place to live,” Moreno said.

Besides building the “mini-habitats” out of inflatable plastic, other parts of the project included planning a lunch that met weight requirements. Lunches had to be no more than 22 ounces per person and lunches for the whole team had to fit into two one-gallon ziplock bags. Space for supplies is a major problem in space missions, the students learned.

At least one student said his experience at Cannon helped make him more sure he wanted a career in the military.

“It’s important to support your country,” said Alex Crisp of Cameo Elementary. “I want to fly, and I like the challenge and training the Air Force offers.”