Mayfield Woods Middle School sixth grader Arya Teymourleui participates in an experiment with Rick White, a laboratory technician at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Mayfield Woods Middle School sixth grader Arya Teymourleui participates in an experiment with Rick White, a laboratory technician at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. (By Blair Ames)

Varshini Suresh, a sixth grader at Mayfield Woods Middle School, says her goal is to one day become an astronaut or a scientist in space.

A visit to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel with her classmates on Friday provided Varshini with an up close look of the field that interests her and her teachers hope this experience might provide their students with an added motivation to pursue their passion for science.


"A lot of the people in the sciences can think back to a particular experience or a particular opportunity that they had that really motivated and piqued their interest. Hopefully this might be that experience for somebody," said Tim Pruett, a sixth grade science teacher at Mayfield Woods.

Students from Mayfield Woods received a firsthand look at NASA's New Horizons mission to the Pluto system during a visit to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Mayfield Woods students joined students from Meade Middle School and Westport Academy to meet with New Horizons team members and receive a behind the scenes look at the Applied Physics Laboratory through its "Space Academy" series.

The Space Academy series, launched in 2000 and offered in partnership with Discovery Education, takes students behind the scenes of actual space missions and introduces them to engineers and scientists working on NASA projects.

Twice during each school year, about 100 students from area middle schools visit the Applied Physics Laboratory to participate in the hands-on activities that organizers hope will inspire students to pursue a career in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

"It's a challenge. We need students, we need people to get interested in these fields," said Mike Buckley, public information officer with the Applied Physics Laboratory. "So, we find different ways to do that and this is just one example."

The daylong series of events included a briefing on the NASA New Horizons mission, a student press conference with team members and science demonstrations throughout the Applied Physics Laboratory campus.

New Horizons, the first NASA New Frontiers mission, is designed to make the first reconnaissance of Pluto, its moon, Charon, and other icy, rocky mini-worlds in the distant Kuiper Belt. New Horizons could tell scientists much more about the origins and out frontier of the solar system.

Launched in January 2016, the New Horizons mission is expected to make its closest Pluto approach in July.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory manages this mission for NASA, and designed, built and operates the spacecraft.

"It's been a great experience," Pruett said of the trip. "It's very informative and just to let them experience and talk with the real scientists and such has been really enlightening and exciting for them."

This is the first time that Mayfield Woods students have had the opportunity to attend the Applied Physics Laboratory's Space Academy.

Thirty-seven sixth graders represented Mayfield Woods on the trip. Before being selected to attend, each student had to submit an essay stating why they wanted to attend and what made them a good representative of Mayfield Woods.

Sixth-graders at Mayfield Woods will actually be starting their astronomy unit the week after this visit.

"While a lot of this is new to them right now, we can certainly build on this when we're teaching our units," Pruett said.