NASA Aerospace Academy Helps Local High School Students Shoot for the Moon
By Brian Hiro
On a chilly afternoon last winter at Escondido High School, a group of students was playing with remote control cars.
This wasn’t an idle, time-wasting activity, however. They weren’t going to get sent to the principal’s office.
This was an organized science experiment, of the most fun kind.
Under the direction of three STEM majors from Cal State San Marcos, the two dozen Escondido High students took turns driving the RC cars over different materials spread out on tarps outside of a classroom. The objective: to discover how cars of varying sizes and tire treads traversed each of four tarps, which were covered with rock, soil, sand and corn starch.
“This one is performing the best,” CSUSM student Ashley Corey told the assembled kids, pointing to a blue car with oversized wheels that was zipping over a small mound of sand. “Why do you think that is? What’s different about it and what makes it special?”
“It’s got big wheels and all-wheel drive,” one of the Escondido students replied.
“That’s right,” Corey said. “Now let’s try a new terrain. Let’s try the rocks. Don’t be scared. Drive fast.”
Imagine the RC car as a rover bouncing across the surface of the moon and the sand as the surface itself, and you have a pretty good idea of what the experiment was angling at. The students were in the early stages of a yearlong project in which they teamed up to build their own version of a moon rover while learning a series of lessons about lunar exploration and space in general. And the same thing was happening at three other local high schools: Mission Hills, San Marcos and San Pasqual.
Welcome to CSUSM’s “aerospace academy.” In May, the university wrapped up the first year of a three-year grant of $480,000 from NASA to create a space education program for high school students, many of them from underrepresented backgrounds. CSUSM was one of only eight institutions nationwide that received a total of $3.8 million in Minority University Research and Education (MUREP) awards last fall for the MUREP Aerospace Academy.
“The idea of an academy is a multifaceted and a long-term experience for these kids,” said Ed Price, who secured the grant in collaboration with fellow CSUSM physics professor Gerardo Dominguez. “A lot of times kids will have opportunities to do one-off things, and that can be great. But I think something that's sustained like this over time is going to be a meaningful experience for these students.”
In addition to his teaching duties, Price is the faculty director and co-founder of CSUSM’s Center for Research and Engagement in STEM Education (CRESE). For years, CRESE has operated a program called Mobile Making that involves undergraduates in STEM majors fanning out to local middle schools to deliver science lessons to mostly underserved students. Mobile Making has proven so successful that CSUSM is now piloting similar initiatives at three other California State University campuses.
The aerospace academy represents not only the first time CRESE has extended its STEM outreach to the high school level, but it’s also unique in that standalone lessons are replaced by a yearlong project under a single theme.
It started last November with a session introducing various concepts around lunar exploration. Over the next several months, STEM ambassadors from CSUSM guided students as they learned about the lunar surface, made their own lunar simulant using samples of terrain from Earth, designed wheels for their model rover and utilized a 3D printer to create them, constructed a chassis for the rover, and employed circuits and electronics to build a motor to power the vehicle.
The project culminated in May with a capstone event in which the almost 50 students across the four high schools congregated at CSUSM to put their rovers to the test. The ground rules: The wheels could not inflate and had to be designed to function in an environment with little to no atmosphere. The wheels had to be at least 5 inches in diameter and perform on dry sand over 8 feet on a grade of 14 degrees while carrying as much weight as possible. And the wheels were to be evaluated by vehicle motion generated by traction forces only (no kicking up sand).
“The thing that really appealed to me about this program is that we're not just doing random projects,” Corey said. “These are things that people at NASA are doing now. We're obviously on a lower scale with less money. But we're not just giving people worksheets and homework. This is real science.”
The aerospace academy, however, involves more than one continuous science experiment. The high school students also toured CSUSM’s science buildings and labs in February, attended and volunteered for the annual Super STEM Saturday event at CSUSM in March, and visited the Palomar College planetarium in April. There are even family showcase events where students can display their work for family members and presentations by groups like CSUSM’s National Latino Research Center to encourage the students, many of whom have no college role models, to continue their education.
“We’re bringing science to underserved populations, giving them real hands-on learning experiences, and hopefully inspiring some to feel like they can study whatever science they’re interested in and pursue it as a career,” said April Nelson, the program director for CRESE. “And the teaching experience for our STEM majors is huge, even if they’re not planning to go into teaching. It’s just a win-win relationship across the board.”
Back at Escondido High, physics teacher Destinee Ito watched with pride as more than 20 students from all four grade levels worked in teams to make their own lunar simulant. She said the aerospace academy exposes her students to a type of science that they wouldn’t otherwise get, especially since the school shut down its robotics program.
“This is definitely not something that they’ve done before,” Ito said. “I love being able to foster engineering skills, particularly aerospace engineering. That was what really caught their attention because obviously they know NASA. That name carries a lot of weight. I’ve come across kids who aren’t in the program and they’re like, ‘This is awesome. Are you having it next year? Can I join?’ ”
Across the classroom, Corey and fellow ambassadors Mireya Delgardo and Jon Kohler were examining the Earth terrain samples that had been brought in by students and discussing which ones were most representative of a lunar surface. Michael Filtous, a sophomore at Escondido High, was awarded the prize of a NASA hat for what was judged the most interesting sample – he had collected dirt from his backyard, fried it in a pan, frozen it and sifted it. The resemblance to moon dust was uncanny.
“I love it,” Corey said. “We’re gonna be bragging about that at our next meeting.”
Filtous said he learned about the academy from his sister, a student at CSUSM.
“I want to be an aerospace engineer when I grow up, and this seemed like a good way to take my first steps toward that,” he said. “I’ve always liked building little machines out of cardboard and stuff. I just like mechanical things.”
Corey graduated in December with a degree in physics, but she stuck around as a STEM ambassador for the spring semester while she prepared to begin a Ph.D. program this fall. She’s a first-generation college graduate who aspires to run a research lab as a condensed matter experimentalist.
“But when I first became interested in physics, I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer or an astronaut,” Corey said. “The problem was, I didn’t know what that meant to be an aerospace engineer. I didn’t have the experiences these kids are having. That’s why I’m really passionate about STEM outreach. For students to see that scientists don’t have to look the way society portrays them is very important to me.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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