A group of 25 Muscogee County high school students are receiving free hands-on experience in aerospace engineering during a two-week summer day camp at the Columbus State University Coca-Cola Space Science Center.
The CCSSC is one of four sites implementing the first year of Georgia Tech’s Innovative Mars Exploration Education and Technology (IMEET) program, part of a three-year, $1.25 million project, funded by a NASA grant, to promote engagement among high school and college students in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville, Fla., is leading the project and working with the Integrated Product Lifecycle Engineering Lab at Georgia Tech as well as the CCSSC in Columbus and the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach, Fla. The Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Ga., is scheduled to be added in Year 2.
“That’s fantastic company,” said Shawn Cruzen, the center’s executive director and a professor in CSU’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences.
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CCSSC receives $50,000 for each of the three years to run the camp. Two students from Georgia Tech are leading the camp in Columbus. Five teachers from the Muscogee County School District and two CCSSC staffers are participating to learn how to adapt the program for classrooms and run the camp beyond the three-year grant.
“We have to be able to know how to teach the kids everything the Georgia Tech people are doing,” said Matthew Bartow, the CCSSC’s educational services and business coordinator.
“The idea is this will bring more hands-on science to the schools,” said Tina Cross, a CCSSC teacher on assignment from MCSD. Most of the schools have 3D printers now, but many teachers don’t know how to use them in science lab activities, she added.
The CCSSC made 25 spots available for rising freshmen-through-seniors in Muscogee County’s high schools. The students applied and needed a reference from a teacher and approval from their principal. Each of MCSD’s nine high schools is represented. The two-week camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each weekday.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited Monday, during the camp’s midpoint.
The campers use a computer-aided design program and a 3D printer to produce wheels for a mini-scale rover that could operate on Mars, which has less gravity and a thinner atmosphere than Earth. The campers also create two other parts for the rover: claws to pick up rock samples and quadcopters to serve as scouting drones the rover could launch to explore areas of Mars where wheels won’t work.
Then the campers construct their rovers from prefabricated parts and test the vehicles on an obstacle course, where they earn points in a competition.
“It’s no minor task to program that robot with all the sensors on board to detect all those colors, to detect the barriers, to follow the lines, to magnetically pick up their samples,” Cruzen said. “That’s a lot of programming in a little box.”
The CCSSC campers electronically communicate with 25 other campers at Georgia Tech in their virtual engineering team – an educational reason to use their cellphones. All of which helps them better understand what it takes to work at NASA.
“Now you’re talking about soft skills,” Cruzen said. “You’re talking about communication, teamwork, parsing out duties and responsibilities, learning about workflow.”
The camp is another example of the CCSSC’s effort to expand the ways it incorporates robotics into programming, Cruzen said. That’s because NASA uses increasingly more robots in its missions, making this camp part of a minor league system to develop the next generation of space scientists.
“Every drone, every probe we send to another planet or just a satellite around the Earth is, in some ways, a robot,” Cruzen said. “Teaching them this technology and helping them to understand at this level helps them to climb that spiral staircase to work in those technological fields.”
While they learn engineering skills, these campers also learn about CSU and Georgia Tech. “This is a fantastic opportunity for them to pick up good life and career skills and also get exposure to some great institutions of higher education,” Cruzen said.
After the three-year grant expires, Cruzen said, CCSSC expects to have the training needed to run the program as one of its summer camps. So these campers receive for free something that would cost their families hundreds of dollars if it were a regular summer camp.
Skyla Brooks, a rising junior at Columbus High School, and Ja’Von Holmes, a rising senior at Spencer High School, are two of the campers appreciating the experience.
“Georgia Tech is a school I would like to go to one day,” Skyla said, “and collaborating with them is a really good opportunity. It’s also a good thing to meet people who also are interested in the same thing.”
Skyla, 16, explained why she is interested in an engineering career.
“It forces you to use your creativity and those critical thinking skills,” she said. “That’s important in not only engineering but also in life too.”
Ja’Von, 17, wants to become a computer programmer, but this camp has piqued his curiosity about aerospace engineering.
“It’s innovative,” he said. “You’re always making something new, or you’re replicating something that’s old but trying to make it better.”
Rabiyah Rahim, a special-education math and science teacher at Northside High School, hopes to use this camp to increase the collaborative activities for students in her classroom.
“This is the idea of me as a teacher being a facilitator,” she said.
Making math and science lessons more practical and tangible is another takeaway.
“These are real-world problems they’re actually working on,” Rahim said, “and that gets them excited.”