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Scientist for a Day Contest Attracts Diverse Group of Achievers

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Scientist for a Day Contest Attracts Diverse Group of Achievers

Scientist For a Day: At a Glance

+ Introduction to the sixth edition

+ Contest Rules


+ Meet the winners


NASA missions like Cassini attract the best and brightest scientists, and it seems the same holds true for the youth who seek the distinction of Cassini Scientist for a Day. The winners of the Fall 2008 science essay contest are a group of accomplished students with wide-ranging interests and diverse cultural backgrounds.

Students from 70 schools in 30 states submitted their original essays arguing the merits of targets to be imaged by the Cassini spacecraft as it orbits Saturn. Organizers received a total of 434 essays by 615 students – more than twice as many essays as were submitted for the previous contest.

The would-be scientists were asked to choose between three of Saturn's moons -- Titan, Mimas and Tethys -- and submit a composition arguing why their choice made the best target for Cassini's attention. All three of the moons under consideration were imaged by Cassini on Nov. 26.

Jarrett Dienel, Ben Gendell, Sadeechya Gurung and Emma Wiley
Students from Beech Tree Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, chose to image Tethys.

Among the writers of the winning essays, many have already accomplished great things in their academic careers:

• Ashwini Gokhale, a senior from Richwoods Valley High School in Peoria, Ill., participated in the National Spelling Bee in 2003 and 2004. Ashwini's family hails from India, and she speaks Marathi and Hindi.

• Aracely Silva, a fifth grader, has participated for two years on the school robotics team at West Ward Elementary School in Killeen, Texas.

• Jason Ruchti, a senior at Craig High School in Janesville, Wis., is an active cross-country runner.

• Ninth grader Sarah Cottrell-Cumber of North Stafford High School in Stafford, Va., served as editor-in-chief of her school's yearbook in 2006.

Jason Ruchti and Derek Thompson
Jason Ruchti and Derek Thompson, from Craig High School in Janesville, Wis., chose Titan.

In addition to the broad range of interests displayed by the young writers, most of this year's finalists represent ethnically diverse schools. Of the nine finalist essays, six represent schools in which more than 25 percent of the students are African American or Hispanic. And two of the semifinalist essays were submitted by schools with significant numbers of Native American students.

The contest is designed to inspire students and get them to ponder the kinds of choices faced by scientists on a space mission like Cassini as they evaluate the scientific merits of a variety of possible targets for exploration and discovery.

Contest judges at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Cassini mission for NASA, were delighted with the well-researched and insightful essays. Arguing for Titan as a target for Cassini, Ruchti and fellow Craig High School 12th grader Derek Thompson wrote, "Scientists have thought that perhaps the geologic activity on Titan is similar to that of early Earth at a much lower temperature. By studying the geological activity and structures on Titan, we could perhaps get a better idea of how early Earth worked . . . we may find out how life on Earth came into existence."

Ashwini Gokhale
Ashwini Gokhale from Richwoods High School in Peoria, Ill.

Following their experience, several of the winners commented on how exciting and even cool they find the work of Cassini scientists. Fifth grader Ben Gendell, of Beech Tree Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., said he doesn't really know what he wants to be when he grows up. "But I do know that being a scientist would be awesome," he said.

Yvonne Yun Fan of Park Elementary School in Alhambra, Calif., isn't sure what career path she'll take either.

"I hope it will be something involving science, hopefully astronomy," she said. "I think I would make a good researcher."

Cottrell-Cumber, strikes a more certain tone in revealing her scientific aspirations.

"When I grow up I hope to become an astrophysicist, or at least have my masters in physics," she said.

Yvonne Yun Fan
Yvonne Yun Fan, from Park Elementary School in Alhambra, Calif.

One of Silva's fellow fifth-grade essayists at West Ward Elementary, John Caravana, said that taking part in the contest inspired him because he got to see what scientists study and find out about amazing places like Saturn. Picturing his future, he said, "I think I will be a scientist because my dad said that I was a genius and it would be perfect for me."

West Ward holds the distinction of being a NASA Explorer School and 80 percent of its students are from economically disadvantaged households.

Teachers of these ambitious student participants shared their excitement at the opportunity to interact directly with a NASA mission. Julie Tipton, who serves as the science department head at Lyons High School in Lyons, Kan., thinks her students learned a lot from the project. "We LOVED looking at all the images on the site and learning about the Cassini mission. Awesome inspiration and resources!" she said.

John Caravana, Min Kim, Aracely Silva and Andrea Velazquez
Students from West Ward Elementary School in Killeen, Texas, chose to image Mimas.

As a reward for their work, the top essay writers and their classmates were connected directly with NASA scientists via teleconference. More than 100 students representing 30 classes across the country participated in the conversation, with questions ranging from which classes a future scientist should take to the composition of Saturn's rings.

More information about Cassini Scientist for a Day contest is available at