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STEM that Works, building the community of educators first - Dr. Rai Menges, 1 August 2013

During the month of July I had the honor of working with more than a dozen science and math teachers within the Cincinnati Engineering Enhanced Mathematics and Science Program (CEEMS) which aims to elevate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education by building a collaborative, sustainable, and degree-granting infrastructure throughout the region. CEEMS was created through a 2011 $9.2 million grant from National Science Foundation (NSF) for five years. I led the Engineering Energy Systems portion, which was based on the Energy Systems class I developed for upper level undergrads and graduates students in College of Engineering . It was an amazing experience to work with such an energized and dedicated group of people. Their creativity and high-level of work demonstrates that the front line of American educations is healthier than many would lead us to believe.

The University of Cincinnati CEEMS Program sponsors the Summer Institute for Teachers (SIT), one of four professional development pathways for teacher preparedness in the region. The science and math teachers I worked with were competent, dedicated and in some cases aggressive in their desire to innovate within the guidelines they were given. Most were disheartened by the guidelines and their inability to always respond to student needs. However, all acknowledged that STEM supported programs and the related “social” reinforcement seemed to have a positive effect.

As a side note; in several cases I was very surprised to find a few of the teachers would not be out of place at any good R&D group or laboratory. A couple had considered careers as industrial scientists and engineering professions before coming to education. So the quality of teachers in this particular sample was obvious.

All this said where the scientific literacy of many high school students now dwarfs that of many Congressman, we are not seeing the increase in STEM majors that were promised and this is an issue for the very near future of engineering, science and manufacturing in the United States. In the interim we have significant issues that can be mediated within the engineering community. Including issues around retention, older engineers and creating effective training and mentoring within the profession as a real method of elite recruitment.

Why satellites are cool, from Telstar to Voyager to Ion Propelled SpaceBots – 15 July 2012

For several years I taught Integrated Spacecraft Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. The school is best known for its world-class expertise in jet engines. So the few space folks are well not as well understood as the aircraft folks, but we are tolerated.

I doctored in aerospace engineering and physics. In the rarified world of Los Alamos, where I was recruited for a postdoctoral appointment, I found myself in a wonderful place doing wonderful things with satellites.

After leaving Los Alamos I worked on every kind of vehicle; military, electric, UAV, ROV and few things not named yet. In 2006 I developed a new type of smart structure that seemed ideal for spacecraft and last year I returned to satellite engineering. It is just a great place to be. But trying to pass on the enthusiasm to engineering students has been tough.

2012 may be the year we encourage engineering students from diverse backgrounds to pursue satellite engineering. We have Voyager 1 taking humanity into interstellar space and this summer we have the anniversary of Bell Labs Telstar 1. Launched in 1977 Voyager 1 was a product of the “can do” attitude and competence that built America’s first and possibly only great space program, Apollo. In 1962 Telstar 1 was technology that captured the imagination and the popular culture. It took us from the atomic age to the space age.

It’s hard. I know its hard being a space engineer these days. NASA seems to be on one schizoid bent after another.

I have to believe that the men and women who gave birth to space engineering are looking after us somehow and unfortunately for many from much higher than orbit.

The guys who trained me gave birth to the technology age. They were graduates of engineering schools like Chicago, MIT and Georgia Tech. Others worked on the Manhattan Project. Built the first computers and even built some of the first rockets. They would be celebrating this year and asking why are we still wasting time on technologies that won’t accomplish what we have already done.

Space engineering is about moving forward. It is a job for optimists. Not bureaucrats. And most of all it is job for innovative, courageous engineers willing to do the hard work that is really, really cool.

A slightly non-executive summary from an analysis of a human mission to Mars 19 March 2012

During a series of recent meetings with high-level technologists and financial folks I was asked to provide an analysis to on the reasoning and feasibility of a near term human mission to Mars. (Why? Well people with money like information and it’s an election year and they asked.)

Here are the salient points extracted from the analysis.
The main impediments for a human mission to Mars:

  • Money; no one country/corporation is likely to be able to afford a human Mars mission. (New technologies in the 15-20 year time frame may improve the odds, but not if NASA has its way.)
  • Radiation during the flight to and from Mars and significant radiation on Mars create unique problems for human crews. Prolonged exposure to heavy particles is dangerous. The most serious aspect of prolonged deep space travel is the increased probability of blood based diseases such as leukemia and lymphoma and of course related damage to blood forming organs.
  • Weightlessness and bone demineralization. Osteoporosis is a substantial concern as well as related muscle atrophy. No human, man or woman, is immune to osteoporosis. Related advanced muscle atrophy including really important muscles like the heart is potentially life threatening.
  • Psychological stress and space psychosis. 18-months with five other people and a completely isolated environment.
  • The big one, the potential of a Martian explorer returning home, even with the best technology, 62%. Bummer. (Includes potential of cancer, other illnesses, injury and a fellow traveler bludgeoning you to death.) Probability of the vehicle returning home, 73%. At least we get to keep the souvenirs.
  • And the most important reason not to pursue a near term Mars mission; we have 7 billion people on Earth. 2 billion are lacking clean water 1.5 billion are homeless. There is stuff we need to do here first.

Now what isn’t being discussed by the media, other consultants and unthinking idiots…

There is water on Mars. So the probability that there is some form of life is high. How high the probability is difficult to say. However, others and I do not believe we have the right to travel to Mars until a critical analysis of first contact for even contact with the one-celled stuff is completed. Mars is not our planet. Many would argue that Earth is not our planet either. We are, for now its most dominant residents. This has not been a good thing for the Earth. We are filthy creatures with little of no respect for our/the planet or for the other lives that share it with us.

Also the actual success rate for autonomous Mars probes is not good. That is without humans. Recently we have backed out of a couple important Mars missions. So the lack of will and resources is a continuing threat to human Mars exploration as well as many other scientific endeavors.

Mars is an interesting place. It offers no commercial space opportunities at present and probably will not for a long time. However, scientific autonomous or robotic missions must continue and should be funded with as many internationally cooperative ventures as possible. (On this point, we need to stop pissing everyone off.) P. Menges 19 March 2012

 

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