NASA's Marshall Center engineering design challenge sends st

by Marshall Center

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Forget video games. Forget sports. Ditto for movies.

Instead, two middle school students have been spending their time tackling some of the same challenges NASA engineers face when designing propulsion systems at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Before testing their engineering skills, Jeff Alden and Justin O'Connor were just a couple of "typical teens" from Portland, Ore. They spent much of their time thinking about sports and hip-hop music. Now, thanks to becoming involved in the Marshall Center's Earth to Orbit engineering design challenge, their thoughts are centered on building rocket engines.

But the biggest change for these two young men is surprising-even to them: They arrive at school most days to work on their propulsion project, at a time when many of their classmates are just getting out of bed.

The students' teacher, Joanne Fluvog of Lane Middle School, has seen a "tremendous, positive" change in all her students involved in the Earth to Orbit design challenge - a hands-on educational program in which students are assigned a project to build an electrodynamic propulsion system capable of pushing a model train up an incline. Students attempt to move a model "satellite" along a track, using their own design with a specific set of materials. And they explore and discover the effects of wire in relation to size, shape, strength, direction of current, and its relationship to a magnetic field.

"The biggest change I've seen is in the students' motivation," said Fluvog, "and their belief in their ability to think."

Both Justin and Jeff say being involved in a real engineering project has made them realize that "science is cool." Instead of playing baseball or shooting hoops, the teen-agers are now focused on shooting for the stars. Since becoming friends two years ago, they had talked about someday entering the medical field. Now, both are focused on a future in aerospace engineering.

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"The Earth to Orbit program has benefited me in getting me interested in science, helping me figure out my career goals. It has given me a sense of responsibility," said Jeff, 13.

The same is true for his classmates involved in the project, particularly Justin.

"While I used to spend a lot of time playing sports, I now find science interesting," said Justin, 14.

Their teacher found the project valuable because it can be used by any student, and any teacher, even those without technical backgrounds. In fact, students in 12 other states -- Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, Montana, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington - are also taking part in the Marshall Center's Earth to Orbit program. NASA uses such programs to support educational excellence while participating in educational outreach programs through centers around the country.

Fluvog said the program's versatility is an important point for her students. "Programs like Earth to Orbit, that are connected to a need in the outside world, help our students know that what they are doing is important," she said.

The Marshall Center provides the materials and support for Earth to Orbit at no charge to schools, which Fluvog said is vital to budget-conscious school systems. "Our school-wide test scores are generally low, and we no longer receive property tax money for our school system. So programs like this are desperately needed in our school," she said.

While Jeff and Justin can agree about the benefits of the Earth to Orbit program, they don't see eye-to-eye on everything. Justin said he will continue to root for the New York Yankees, but he hopes to one day "play" for NASA's team. Seattle Mariner's fan Jeff agrees with his friend, except, of course, for that part about the Yankees.


For more information: educational opportunities with the Marshall Center.
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