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HBCU and NASA Launch Middle Passage Project


Coppin State University students will work with NASA to bring African-American history to life during a year-long geographical research project, federal and university officials announced yesterday.

Six Coppin students along with Dr. Douglas Reardon, an associate history professor, will work on The Middle Passage Project, which includes using NASA satellites to explore the influence of the trans-Atlantic slave trade on current environmental issues.       

The study is supported by an $186,000 grant awarded by the NASA Applied Sciences Program and administered by the Geosciences Interoperability Office at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The project works in conjunction with NASA’s four national priorities: ecological forecast, carbon management, agricultural efficiency, and managing the coast.

The one-year grant will support Coppin research teams conducting 10-day fieldwork and studies in Ghana, St. Kitts and Barbados.

“Too often and for too long, African-American history has been boxed up and delivered in February like a Christmas ornament,” said Reardon, who is the principal investigator for the project. “I think the African-American experience has broader value than is appreciated.”

The project means a lot to Coppin and the community. It’s a chance to show that we can contribute in meaningful ways to NASA missions. This project helps our students as they go on to graduate schools and work on other projects,” Reardon told a group gathered at Coppin for the project’s launch.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, who was instrumental in obtaining funding, echoed that sentiment. “It’s wonderful that we can have a grant where African-American people can contribute to NASA,” Cummings said.

Using images gathered by NASA satellites, student researchers will assist in conserving historic landscapes, rain forests and coasts in West Africa and the Caribbean that were linked in the slave trade through the Middle Passage.

“Initially, the program would have included two to three students, now they’ve brought on six. It’s a great opportunity for research and training. That’s the part I’m most excited about,” said Patricia A. Weir Jancovic, of the Goddard Space Flight Center, who will serve as the project liaison for NASA.

“A number of students could come back to work at Goddard at some point,” she added.

Students were selected based on grades, prerequisite courses and interest. Fayola Peters, a junior computer science major, is scheduled to conduct her research in St. Kitts. “I got into this because of the GIS (Geographic Information System),” Peters said.

Nicholai Francis-Lau,  a junior, will conduct his research in Ghana. “This is exactly the type of work that I want to do,” he said. “I am going into environmental science to preserve historic sites.” 

Work in Ghana will include documenting important cultural sites near slave trade era fortresses and identifying environmentally sustainable development and forest conservation. In the Caribbean, students will use satellite data and geospatial technologies to examine sugar plantations, which were central to the economy during the slave-trade era in the Caribbean.  

In addition, Coppin researchers will work closely with University College of Barbados to study sugar cultivation landscape transformations throughout history. 

Students will investigate the source of the tropical forest demise by using NASA satellite data acquired through hand-held computers equipped with Global Positioning System devices.  In addition, they will map cultural sites that could potentially be used to promote African-American heritage tourism, and possibly assist in the conservation of forests.

“The loss of tropical forests, the conservation of ecosystems, and the better management of our resources are issues of the highest priority today,” said Reardon. ”The Middle Passage Project shows the broader scientific community the potential benefits of perspectives and experiences that are informed by African-American history.”

-Dianne Hayes


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