PLEASANTON — Say what you will about the East Bay, but it is not known for its icy tundra, uninhabitable snow deserts and sub-zero temperatures.
Pleasanton fifth-grade teacher Rob Palassou will have to get used to all of the above when he accompanies NASA researchers to Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's Arctic Circle this week.
Palassou will leave today to participate in an expedition to the McGill Arctic Research Station, or MARS, coordinated by NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and McGill University.
"It's not a dog-and-pony show," Palassou said of the working trip. "It's not watered down at all."
He expects to help scientists collect and analyze samples from early morning to late at night during the mission, which runs through Aug. 4.
Palassou and other members of the team will be looking for evidence of segregated ice, which exists below the surface and may provide evidence as to whether or not life can be sustained on Mars.
"We'll be studying the arctic as a model for the Martian arctic," said NASA's Chris McKay, one of the expedition leaders. "We're going to a place on earth that is kind of similar."
In addition to its scientific goals, McKay said one of NASA's goals for participating teachers is to generate excitement for NASA-level research.
"The ultimate education goal is to get students excited about science," McKay said.
About a dozen people will be taking part in the expedition. A handful are teachers from the United States and Canada, whose travel is covered by NASA. The teachers are there as part of the Spaceward Bound program, which requires its participants to use experiences they gained in the field to generate science-based classroom activities.
Palassou, who teaches fifth grade at Valley View Elementary School, became involved with NASA when one of his students nominated him for the Educators Astronauts Program in 2004. After the initial application process, he got far enough into the program to become an Educator-Astronaut, which in turn led him to the Spaceward Bound program.
"They're all about inspiring the next generation of explorers," Palassou said.
NASA, along with many private industries, struggles to keep students interested in pursuing science, engineering, technology and math in school.
"Students, and some adults, think 'Ugh, science? Pound the books,'" Palassou said. "You take science, particularly field science; it actually is really fun."
This isn't Palassou's first foray into field science. He previously assisted McKay on a similar expedition to the Mojave Desert. Using his experiences there, he was able to create a classroom activity in which his students took soil samples and used experiments to analyze data from Pleasanton's Kottinger Park.
Before beginning his career as a teacher, Palassou also worked as a research associate at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and trained to be an endurance race car driver. Now, he hopes to take the experiences he gained assisting NASA researchers to develop an exciting curriculum of science-based classroom activities that can be accessed by teachers nationwide.
"I thought I'd be doing cubicle work," Palassou said. "I never thought I'd get a chance to visit that part of the world."
Reach Sam Sutton at 925-847-2160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you would like to ask Rob Palassou or other team members questions, submit them to email@example.com or through the mission's blog at spacewardboundarctic2008.blogspot.com/.