Ronald Sanchez thought it was a joke when his high school teacher told him his name would be on NASA's Perseverance rover heading straight to Mars. To his surprise, it was true.
A couple of years ago, science teacher Alejandro Mundo, 29, approached his astronomy class at Kingsbridge International High School in the Bronx, New York, with an exciting idea proposed by NASA: His 25 students could send their names, stenciled on chips, to Mars on the rover created to pave the way for humans to explore the red planet.
The opportunity created a personal connection for his predominantly Latino students and the historic space mission. It also engaged the students in science — a field that is still underrepresented when it comes to Latinos, according to a recent Pew Research Center report.
Latinos and Blacks are only 8 percent and 9 percent of people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations, respectively. Current trends in STEM degrees appear unlikely to substantially narrow those gaps, according to the report.
"The only way we can change that in the future is by starting with this current generation. So by igniting my students with a passion for science, that is the key that I have seen that can make a difference," Mundo said. "Little by little, we will be changing those statistics."
Sanchez, 20, was amazed that his name would be on another planet. He migrated from El Salvador to the Bronx with his father four years ago and is pursuing a nursing career at Lehman College at City University of New York.
"I think I'm a normal person that is not special," Sanchez said. "So I think this was a great experience — and it can inspire people like me."
NASA's Perseverance mission included many firsts for the space agency, whose rover, led by Latina flight director Diana Trujillo, landed on the Martian surface Feb. 18 to roam for signs of ancient microbial life. Inside the rover is a small helicopter, named Ingenuity, which is scheduled next week to become the first vehicle ever to take flight on another planet. NASA also created its first Spanish-language show for its planetary landing.
The opportunity for the students' involvement came after Mundo, who is also an associate researcher for the NASA GISS Climate Change Research Initiative, took his students on a field trip in 2019 to the NYC Center for Aerospace and Applied Mathematics. The center, which is partnered with NASA, shows students what it's like to live on the International Space Station and train like astronauts, and it simulates a space mission to Mars.
The field trip was a total success, Mundo said, the kind of experience that inspired his students about possible careers in STEM — academic disciplines he said need to be more representative of the communities they serve.
The majority of students at Kingsbridge International High School are new to the country. The student population is 93 percent Latino, and 86 percent of students are simultaneously learning the English language.
Former student Jorge Fernandez, whose name is also in the rover, wasn't interested in science until the 11th grade, when he entered Mundo's classroom. He soon, however, became excited by the field.
Fernandez and his peers took what they had learned and applied it outside their classroom, creating Mundology Club, a space dedicated to STEM. They went on science-related trips, planted trees, visited New York City's museums, studied rocks at parks and talked to scientists.
Fernandez, 18, now a student at the New York City College of Technology who is interested in a career in science, feels fortunate to have had the educational opportunities. He said other classmates also plan to pursue STEM-related careers.
"I couldn't have this opportunity in my country — I feel like our teacher made that possible," said Fernandez, who is from the Dominican Republic. "It's really important for us Latinos to get into it, because, basically, we can do a lot."
Mundo said he is touched by the students' desire to continue learning, especially because he can relate to their upbringings. He came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 12 not knowing English and recalls being told by an adult as a teenager that he would end up cleaning bathrooms or working in a factory. He disagreed.
"I remember I told him: 'No, I'm going to college. I'm going to get a career, and I'm going to use this career not for my personal growth but to help others, specifically people like me,'" he said.
While researching for NASA, Mundo hopes he can continue to create pathways for his students to succeed and leave their own legacies.
"We can give a hand to the community. A lot of times I tell my students: 'You think you need money. You think you need all these resources,'" he said. "'But no, you can start where you are. You can create that impact locally, and we just made it to Mars!'"