PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
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Bam! To the Moon

Rahul Chadha with Kelly Gordon

Every year, workers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, spend two days bulldozing tons of gravel and sand to recreate a lunar landscape on the center's grounds. The assortment of phony craters, lava ridges, and lunar soil make the array of space-travel vehicles that litter the area, including a Saturn moon rocket, look more at home. But the reason for their labor is not to create a movie set for the latest space flick. They're building a racetrack on which student teams from across the nation will compete in NASA's annual Great Moonbuggy Race.

The race, first held in 1994, was developed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the landing on the moon. Each team is made up of six students, who work together to design and build a pedal-powered contraption capable of carrying two team members—one female and one male—over a half-mile of simulated lunar terrain.

The competition held last April brought 28 teams together from 13 states and Puerto Rico. The winning high school team, Graff Career Center in Springfield, Missouri, won a weekend at space camp in Huntsville. First prize in the college division went to Pittsburg State University in Kansas, which also finished in the top three in 1996 and 1998. "We've managed to create a winning tradition," says faculty advisor Larry Williamson. Winners are invited to view a space shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center, where they are treated as VIPs by NASA officials.

To mimic some of the challenges faced by the creators of the original Lunar Rover, all rules for the competition are drawn from designs of the first moonbuggy. Students must address weight and volume constraints in their designs, exactly like NASA engineers had to do thirty years ago. To simulate loading the buggies onto a space shuttle, teams must fit them, unassembled, into four cubic feet of space and carry them a distance of 20 feet. The moonbuggies are then reassembled at the starting line, where they are tested for safety.

NASA has deliberately kept the rules of the competition simple so that engineering students will rely on their own creativity. "I think it's an opportunity to shoot for the goals that NASA engineers and scientists attempted at the beginning of the space race," says Frank Brannon, director of university relations at Marshall Space Flight Center.

While the main goals of the race are to foster teamwork, innovation, and an interest in NASA's space programs, the trip to Huntsville is also an opportunity to have fun. Williamson says one of the main reasons that PSU students participate is to have a good time, but he also acknowledges that "winning first place gives us a lot of bragging rights."

High schoolers are included in the contest to get students interested in engineering at an earlier age. Cole McNair, team leader for Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, had never even been inside a lab before taking part in the competition and designing his own moonbuggy. Now he knows a lot about structural engineering.

"It's very similar to the real world," says Bijan Sepahpour, team advisor for College of New Jersey in Ewing, who won this year's design award. "You have to start from scratch and come up with a final product." One year the College of New Jersey team had to redesign their buggy from ground zero after discovering a design flaw only two weeks before the competition.

The experience seemed like a crisis at the time, but educators know that students gain confidence by overcoming those kinds of obstacles. Every year at the conclusion of the race, Sepahpour poses the same question to his team: "If you knew beforehand the competition would take so much time and effort, would you still do it?" The answer is always the same: a unanimous "Yes!"


Rahul Chadha and Kelly Gordon are Prism editorial interns.

To Serve and Reflect

by Maryam Miller

Recent graduate Eric Baer didn't appreciate how lucky he was as a student at a well-respected engineering college and a future employee of a Fortune 500 corporation until he began helping youngsters learn how to use computers at the Ryves Hall Youth Center for inner-city teenagers in Terre Haute, Indiana. He also coached the center's basketball team and established close relationships with some of the players. "Many times students at Rose-Hulman, including myself, don't realize how good we have it," says Baer, who majored in mechanical engineering. "We will have college educations and opportunities that some of the kids at Ryves Hall will never experience."

Baer's reaction was exactly what Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology literature professor Caroline Carvill and Carrie McKillip of the Vigo County Homeless Coalition had in mind when they initiated the service-learning project last fall. By pushing students out of the classrooms and into the community, educators are helping students learn more about the real world than they could by just reading books, attending lectures, or surfing the Net.

Heightened social consciousness isn't the only goal, however. To improve communication skills, student volunteers are required to write 300- to 350-word essays about their experiences volunteering at local service agencies, which have included the Council on Domestic Abuse, the American Red Cross, and organizations to help the homeless. The essays, along with photos taken by the students, are published in a special insert in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. Last year's student volunteers got the newspaper interested in the program.

"The goals are two-fold," says Carvill. "To get some real-world practical experience into the classroom and to instill the students with a sense of community stewardship. Hopefully, they'll take that with them when they graduate."

Patricia Carlson, another literature professor, also adopted the service learning approach for her freshman composition class. She wants her students to develop writing skills and learn more about the community. Past proposals have included improving student life on campus and designing Web pages for the Terre Haute district offices of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

"The students gain a greater understanding of how an educational or community service organization functions," Carlson says, "and they come to see language as a vehicle for accomplishing change."

Because most of the students are future engineers, Carlson also wants her students to learn the importance of funding and how to approach foundations. "They have to learn persuasion skills as if they already had a working program, instead of just a proposal," she says.

"The community service projects are a reflection of the professions our students are going into," says Jim McKinney, a civil engineering professor who promotes the integration of classroom work with community services. "They are actively giving back to the community."

Sophomore mechanical engineering major Aaron Horn, who helped finish a roofing project on a home constructed by Habitat for Humanity, agrees. "I hadn't had that much fun in a long time. It was nice to help others."

And even after the academic requirement has been filled, some students have stayed on at their volunteer agencies. Eric Baer continued to participate in Ryves Hall's intramural basketball program. "I had several students who continued to volunteer after the term ended," says Carvill. "You can't hope for anything better than that."

Maryam Miller is a Prism editorial intern.

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