NASA JPL Scientist Heidi Becker wows students with her amazing work

"I had always wanted to be a ballerina," began Heidi Becker.
Luckily for her employers NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory — and, likewise, humankind — Becker's plans eventually changed. After studying the art of ballet in college and then working in experimental theatre for a decade, Heidi went back to school to pursue her passion for science. Years later, far from the ballet stage, Becker was working on something big. And when we say big, we mean big. Eventually, Becker and her team would successfully take groundbreaking photographs and navigate around the atmosphere of the largest planet in our solar system: Jupiter.

"You could fit 1,000 Earths inside of Jupiter," she said.

Sharing her story with a rapt crowd of Mirman students in Kindergarten through Upper School 4, Becker supplemented her talk with stunning videos and photographs taken by machines such as Juno, the satellite she helped engineer to explore Jupiter. "It's an incredibly scary place to send a spacecraft," she said, explaining that Jupiter has a notoriously active and stormy atmosphere.

Briefly explaining the science of Jupiter's magnetosphere, she took students through some of the problem solving that she and her team — a group so big they had to be captured in a wide-angle lens shot inside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena — had to undertake to eventually successfully photograph and navigate the atmosphere on Jupiter. It took them five years to get there, but in 2011, they successfully launched the Juno surveillance mission. Pictures of their findings are now readily available online at the JunoCam website, where Becker encouraged students to go to peruse and play with the images.
"These images are here for the public - not just for the scientists," she said. "Play with them, do art with them, and do your own science," she said, adding that citizen-scientists have contributed valuable work and understanding to the ongoing mission by using the site.

"It's such a beautiful, mysterious atmosphere," she mused while showing videos and photos taken with different processes. Infrared shots of fiery storm systems were met with "oohs" and "aahs" from the captivated crowd. "This is how big the universe is and how small we are. It's really kind of amazing!"
Becker also shared some of the mythology behind the names of the solar system, which was particularly relevant for the Room 5 students, who study mythology extensively. After her talk, Becker took questions from both Lower and Upper School students, whose curiosity had been clearly piqued by the demonstration. One of the most memorable student voices of the afternoon, though, was not a question at all.
"I've always wanted to be an astronaut," said second grader Nova R. "I'm going to grow up and go to Mars."

"If you see that there's something you can contribute," Becker advised her young and aspirational audience, "You have to go for it. No matter who you are or what you've done or what you used to do. Make it happen."
A Horse With No Name No More
from the 2018-2019 Meridian 

After the school rebranded a few years ago, Athletic Director Angela Brown felt that something was missing. While new uniforms were donned for the first day of school, new signs were hung around campus, and a new website launched to accompany refreshed marketing materials, the font-forward design left something to be desired when it came to truly raising team spirit to the power of Mirman. 

In a school where more than half of the student body participates in some form of competitive athletics, and on a campus where a significant expansion created pristine courts and fields upon which one can cheer on several teams on any given day, Brown saw opportunity and sensed desire to elevate the program. After working with Jenn Salcido, Director of Marketing and Communications, and Noah Kaufman, Director of Advancement, the school’s branding was expanded to include a strong, confident (though K-8-appropriate) steed. New universal uniforms, sweatsuits, and swag followed suit. 

“It’s a truly exciting time for athletics at Mirman,” said Brown. “It’s a sense of pride that you can see and feel. It’s almost like we’ve arrived. You could have taken a snapshot of the students in their old uniforms, and then with their new ones with the names on the back. It’s a rallying cry. You can see the pride on their faces.”  

Finally, everyone could don uniforms featuring their own names writ large. Everyone except, of course, the horse. Everyone knew we had a mascot — you’d see the nameless Mustang trotted out for the occasional assembly or championship bout — but nobody really knew the mascot. 

What if the community could help change that? 

Last fall, Brown and her colleagues in the Physical Education department introduced a contest at an all-school assembly. The objective: not only to name the Mustang, but to tell the mascot’s story. Over the course of a 6-day cycle, ballots were collected from every grade level in both divisions. With Salcido’s help, Brown and Assistant to the Athletic Director Alyssa Woods tallied the results. 

The judges carefully considered the entries, assessing them on an unwritten rubric including points for overall catchiness, gender-neutrality, universal appeal, and other considerations. As the dust settled, one clear winner emerged: Rider. In retrospect, it seemed rather obvious. The school had only recently unveiled its Core Values (Responsibility, Integrity, Discovery, Empathy, and Resilience). And as equine monikers go, Rider makes a certain degree of sense. The name was revealed with much aplomb at an all-school assembly, with Rider trotting out on stage to show off a newly-minted personalized jersey. 

The winning entry belonged to Room 4L students Victoria A. and Amelie S., who soon revealed that they had a little help from their friends, specifically former Room 4L co-teacher and current Librarian Allison Sparks. 

“We had just had a community circle in class talking about the Core Values,” said Sparks. “This was something new to me as a new member of the Mirman community. When I asked the class out loud if they’d considered Rider for the Mustang name, a few of the students wanted to suggest it.” 

“I laughed it off and dismissed the idea,” Sparks admitted. “I thought that since it had come from an adult, it wouldn’t count. But when I saw how excited they were when they submitted it, I knew the name rang true. It really came out of an ‘a ha’ moment we had together as a class. 

“It relates so much to our school and Core Values and helps us make sure we’re always doing the right thing,” said Victoria A. of the new name. 

“It’s amazing to be part of our school history,” added Amelie S. 

The two girls, who themselves represent Mirman on the basketball court and soccer fields as part of the Room 4 teams, admitted that, like many great ideas, their first iteration didn’t ring quite as true. “I think we wanted to do mustard,” said Victoria. 

“Or mayonnaise,” said Amelie. 

As it turns out, most things do get better with teamwork. 

Like any ballot box, this one was not without its curiosities once opened up. Here were a few of the voting trends: 
  • More than a few students wanted to name the Mustang after themselves or their classmates 
  • One entry suggested “Vegan” 
  • “Uncle Grandpa” popped up more than a few times, much to the confusion of one judge. It was revealed upon further investigation that this is in fact an affectionate nickname for Coach Allen Foster. 
  • Regarding “The Mysterious Moose:” decidedly not a horse, but good alliteration. 

A Biography of Rider 
By Victoria A. and Amelie S., Room 4L 
(with editorial assistance from an anonymous magazine editor) 
Once upon a time, a beautiful horse was born. He* shook himself and stood up, curious about the world around him. He began to walk through the forest, stopping every so often to grab some fruit from a tree. After a while, he came upon a group of two little girls and their teacher walking through the woods.

“Hi horse! What’s your name?” the little girl asked. 

“I don’t have a name, actually. What’s yours?” the horse answered. 

“Woah, I can actually understand you,” said the little girl. “That’s so cool!” 

The girls and their teacher spoke with the horse a while longer, introducing themselves and getting to know each other. They wondered aloud why the horse didn’t have a name. 

“I just haven’t thought of one yet,” he said. “I’ve only just been born!” 

The trio brainstormed about names for a while, but then got sidetracked with what they all wanted to be when they grew up. “Do you have any ideas,” asked the teacher?” 

“I want to be a head of school!” one of the girls said. “And my school will need to have Core Values, but I don’t know what those should be.” 

“Maybe I can help you,” volunteered the horse. 

“You need to have responsibility,” began the teacher. “And integrity.” 

“And empathy for other horses!” said the horse. 

“We’ll need to discover things along the way!” said the other girl. 

“And you’ll need some resilience,” the horse finished. 

Suddenly, the trio and the horse looked at one another. “How would you feel if we called you Rider in honor of those core values?” asked the teacher. 

By now, you know how this story ends — happily ever after, surrounded by the cheering crowds. 

*while Rider is a male horse in this story, we know from his biographers that he really can be any gender! Everyone can and should be able to identify with Rider. 
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