Published Online: January 8, 2013
Published in Print: January 9, 2013, as Blogs of the Week

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NASA Project Gives Students Virtual Tour of Mars

The Curiosity, an SUV-size vehicle, is roving the surface of Mars, collecting information on soil, rocks, and other natural resources that scientists hope will enhance their understanding of the red planet.

Now students from across the country can go roving, virtually, right along with it.

Last month, a trio of organizations began hosting a "virtual field trip" to Mars, which gives students and teachers detailed information on the rover's mission and its work. The virtual program, titled "Journey to the Extreme: Your VIP Pass to Mars," also will be archived for schools' future use, for those who missed the initial launch.

The program includes information presented by scientists and engineers who have worked on the rover project, including Leland Melvin, NASA associate administrator for education and an astronaut, and Dave Lavery, program executive for NASA's solar system exploration and the Curiosity's mission.

The project is a joint effort of the foundation, NASA, and Discovery Education. (The foundation was launched by, a founding member of the musical group the Black Eyed Peas.) The virtual trip is part of an overall, five-year project called, meant to engage and inspire students through interactive projects to consider science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math fields.

The program's primary audience is students in grades 3-12, with a focus on middle school, Discovery officials say. Related activities, which are aligned with academic standards, are available for download on

— Sean Cavanagh


Debate Still Rages Over Michelle Rhee's Tenure in D.C. Schools

Michelle Rhee's record as chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools remains contentious, and her leadership style polarizing, more than two years after she resigned and left the nation's capital.

That record—which gets rehashed often amid larger debates about what strategies hold the most promise for turning around a low-achieving public school system—is set to get a fresh examination. John Merrow, the veteran education reporter who closely chronicled Rhee's three-plus turbulent years running the District's long-troubled public schools in a series of broadcasts on The PBS NewsHour, was scheduled to air an hour-long "Frontline" piece on Rhee on Jan. 8.

Rhee has hardly disappeared from the education sphere. The StudentsFirst organization she founded soon after leaving the chancellor's job quickly established itself as one of the most influential shapers of education policies that Rhee touts, such as overhauling teacher evaluation systems.

Under Rhee's watch, District of Columbia schools saw student test scores rise, while enrollment declined. The teachers' union also agreed to a contract that gave her broad authority to fire low-performing teachers. Since her departure, however, concerns about cheating that first arose in a USA Today investigation, have cast a pall over the rising scores during her tenure. A report from the U.S. Department of Education's office of inspector general looking into the matter is still to come, Catherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the OIG, confirmed.

Other signs of progress that quickly emerged during her leadership have also faded: While enrollment in the city's thriving charter school sector continued to increase, the number of families choosing a traditional District of Columbia public school stagnated, according to news accounts.

I'm sure the piece will address all these topics and more. But will the former chancellor, known for posing with broom on the cover of Time magazine, firing a principal with the cameras rolling, and making brash statements like "I am going to start a revolution," and "This isn't a democracy," staunchly stand by all the decisions she made? Or will the passage of time give her a more nuanced view of her tenure?

If you miss the initial broadcast, check out the archives on the "Frontline" website.

One footnote: The timing of this "Frontline" piece could be quite fortuitous for Rhee, whose memoir goes on sale in February.

— Lesli A. Maxwell

Vol. 32, Issue 15, Page 12

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