How NASA is Nurturing Young Minds

Engineering competitions for students are about much more than taking the top prize. Participation alone in a prestigious competition offers not only hands-on experience but can lead to much desired jobs in aerospace.
Competitions can be just as beneficial to employers. At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., educational projects, including competitive events, are critical in attracting and inspiring the next generation of engineers.
“They are a huge benefit for NASA, too,” says Katie Veal Wallace, director of educator professional development and manager for NASA Student Launch, one of Marshall’s two annual signature competitions. “What we do for students is give them an authentic STEM experience so that they know what it’s like in the real world as an engineer.”  
While NASA does not track students after they leave the programs, many end up returning to the administration. “They come to us as interns or they get a job at an aerospace company, and they say ‘the reason I was hired was because I told them I had worked on Student Launch, and I could talk about design reviews with them,’” Wallace says.
Both Student Launch and the other signature competition, Human Exploration Rover Challenge, serve as a training ground for aspiring engineers, using the appeal and intrigue of NASA’s space missions to encourage continuing interest in STEM, says Frank Six, group leader for higher education at Marshall.
Inspired by the Apollo-era lunar rovers and initially called the Great Moonbuggy Race, Rover Challenge is evolving from a speed race over difficult terrain into a contest that more accurately reflects what happens on a planetary exploration.
Started in 1994 as part of a 25th celebratory year for man’s first walk on the moon, the contest involves students from all over the world who design, build and drive human-powered, collapsible vehicles over simulated lunar and Martian terrain at a course at the Marshall campus, one of NASA’s largest centers and a leader in rocketry and propulsion. During its first 20 years, the Great Moonbuggy Race engaged more than 10,000 students and demonstrated that the budding scientists and engineers were capable of complex work.
Students can win awards in a number of categories, such as best design, team spirit, and lightest vehicle, as well as the final driving competition.
Until this year, the winner of the driving prize was the two-person team that finished the course in the fastest time. Starting with the current competition, which culminates next April, participants earn “Rovernauts” points for completing tasks on a new simulated course. The team with the most points earned by overcoming a combination of obstacles and completing mission-objective tasks, such as collecting samples and setting up instruments, is the winner. However, there is still a time element: the Rovernauts must return to home base before their virtual seven minute-supply of oxygen is depleted, or they are disqualified.
That task taps into the spirit of the Apollo 14 launch. Astronauts on that mission had such difficulty walking on the moon that they almost ran out of oxygen returning to the lunar module. In the competition, student exploration crews must make decisions in real time about which objectives to attempt and which ones to bypass, says Julie Clift, who as Rover Challenge program manager was instrumental in implementing shifting the focus from speed to need. This is a logical next step toward emulating planetary exploration, she adds.  
In contrast, Student Launch is a high-powered rocketry competition that started in 2001. It grows each year and currently accepts about 65 teams made up of roughly 650 students from across the country. The competition provides relevant and cost-effective research and development to support the Space Launch System, NASA’s most powerful rocket ever. It’s being developed to take humans to Mars.
Teams build a high-powered rocket and fly it with a payload. Secondary-school teams can choose their own payload, such as crickets or altitude finders. “We want them to focus on the basics of building a high-powered rocket because that’s a lot different than the little model rockets they build in science camps,” Wallace says.
In a separate division, college students have a more rigorous assignment, choosing from options such as designing a rocket with a camera system to detect and identify different color targets from the air and then land upright; or designing a rover that deploys after it lands, rolls five feet, and opens solar panels.
Although there are other rocketry competitions, Wallace believes Student Launch–with its preliminary, critical, and flight readiness design reviews prior to the final event–is unique in replicating the NASA design review process. 
“Many students have told us that’s what makes it an authentic STEM experience,” she says. “When they get a job as an engineer, you’ve got to meet design requirements, be able to prove your design is going to work, be able to do all the calculations, and communicate it to your boss.
“We're excited to engage students in hands-on challenges that connect classroom theory to applications in real-world, working environments,” she adds. “Throughout the process, students interact with NASA scientists and engineers, better preparing them for success in future aerospace and engineering careers."
Nancy S. Giges is an independent writer.
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