New Albany Middle School students have prepared for a visit from NASA mechanical engineer Kobie Boykins on March 18 by building their own Mars "rovers."

New Albany Middle School students have prepared for a visit from NASA mechanical engineer Kobie Boykins on March 18 by building their own Mars "rovers."

The rovers, which students designed as part of the seventh-grade curriculum unit on space, must land an egg safely from a midair drop point. Students also learned a little about Boykins' job during the weeklong unit, which began March 15.

Boykins' visit to the middle school - where he will meet with seventh- and eighth-graders, along with select high school classes - is the culmination of the space unit, said seventh-grade teacher Kirsten Jaster.

"This week in seventh-grade science, we are highlighting the Mars rover program and learning about Kobie Boykins and his contributions to the NASA program," she said. "He highlights teamwork, ingenuity and his curiosity for space at a young age. We hope his dynamic story will plant the seed of a future engineer or space pioneer."

Boykins helped design and build two rovers, called "Opportunity" and "Spirit," for the Mars Exploration Rover Mission. He also will speak about his work at NASA and his dreams of finding life on Mars at 8 p.m. Friday, March 18, at the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts, 100 W. Dublin-Granville Road in New Albany. His visit is part of the McCoy center's 2010-11 season of events.

For the egg-drop project, students will work in teams and try to "land" their rovers without harming the payload, just as NASA engineers had to do on Mars.

"The egg will be the precious rover cargo and they need to design a system to land it safely on the ground," Jaster said.

The students have limited time to build they rovers with common materials that were provided for them. They also were assigned a budget to meet.

The students' project has more in common with Boykins' work than one might think.

When describing his job as a mechanical engineer, Boykins said he uses LEGO blocks to show his coworkers potential designs to engineer for the space program.

"I'm building things with LEGOs at work and I get paid to do that," Boykins said. "I'm like a kid in a candy store. If you can find a job that makes you enjoy work that much, you should do it."

Boykins said humans have a natural curiosity and a "burning desire to learn," which is why the Mars missions are important. The U.S. has been on the forefront of space exploration, he said, and without continued support of the program, the country could fall behind.

One of the most important aspects of landings on Mars is to study the "dead planet," which, he said, some scientists believe retained more water than Earth.

"Mars had water and is considered our sister planet," he said. "Could we lose our water?"

Boykins tells people he wanted to build spaceships from the time he was 7. He recalls watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and wanted to be like the ship's engineer, Geordi La Forge.

He said he started taking things apart at home and was supported by his family, even when he took the television apart. But it was a fifth-grade teacher who convinced him that he could be more than just a class clown if he applied himself.

"I started hitting the books hard," he said. "I had a focus of what I wanted to do."

He said he kept his focus, even when looking for a college that would support his interest in space exploration and hockey. Cal Tech provided both and he was able to work with NASA his junior year in college through a contract NASA has with the school.

"I would tell young people to never let go of their dream," he said. "Find the people that will be able to help get behind you."