Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A report from that other place…

Today is the second day of a conference on Earth, Air, Ocean, and Space: the Future of Exploration, at MIT in Cambridge, MA.  As some of you know, this is where I did my undergraduate studies, and it has been a great enjoyment to be able to talk with three of my former professors.  I also got to speak with my counterpart Director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, Prof. (and former astronaut) Jeff Hoffman, and interact with a number of researchers, students, and technology company representatives. 

Actually, one of the elements that is most amazing to me about this conference is not just the range of presentations and presenters, but the demonstrations of the range of exploration environments that people are currently experiencing.  Yesterday, one of the presentations was made by Astronaut Cady Coleman… from the Node 3 Cupola of the International Space Station.  Really.  She’s in space right now, and sent down a video discussing her experience of living and working in space.  (Her husband, Josh Simpson, is a glass artist whose work is used for the National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award.)

One of today’s remote presentations is from Dana Yoerger of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who is speaking to us about the history and future of autonomous and human-occupied undersea vehicles… from a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  This presentation is live, and though we don’t get to see him, there are opportunities for questions and answers (the greatest barriers to advances in undersea vehicles are energy storage—battery technology—and sensor quality). 

I very much appreciate that this conference highlights a number of exploration disciplines and environments, all of which are relevant to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and research.  Round-the-world sailing, deep sea exploration, undergraduate research design projects to find earth-like planets around other stars, and even the interaction between history and technology in the process of exploration over past human eras.  Of course, many people connect to NASA not through the range of STEM disciplines and applications, but through astronauts—and MIT has even more alumni astronauts than even Purdue.  (This remains an area of fierce competition between my past home and my current one.)   There was a panel of six of them as part of the conference.  (Yes, he is here, too.)

One of the significant issues that has been raised multiple times over this conference is the need for, and limited success of, our interactions as explorers with the public.  One comment yesterday was that, for most of the public, 95% of what they learn and know about STEM research and applications comes not from the classroom, but from other sources.  This suggests that much more of what we do in STEM needs to look outward, in ways that aren’t just talking to people like us.  This isn’t easy for many of us, and speaking personally, I like doing the research geek thing.  It’s hard for me to know how to, and what to, talk to a wide range of people about a range of STEM topics.  There is still a reminder, though, to at least try.  And why should we (I) do that?  

The current head of the Charles Stark Draper Lab just mentioned that the average age of the engineers who designed and built the Apollo missions was 27.  Space was an exciting thing for younger folks to get excited to do.  Kids want to know how to become an astronaut, thinking that the answer will be about a specific class, or major, or test score.  But that’s not the answer.  The responses from the astronaut panel highlighted the importance of picking an area and topic that one loves, and pursing that area with passion and enthusiasm.  Being a team player, and learning to work well with others to complete a mission, are absolutely essential.  Some of the astronauts knew they wanted to pursue that path by watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; others were skilled test pilots.  Others didn’t even consider such a career until after graduate school.  But, in all cases, they emphasized how education, and inspiration, and mentorship helped them along the way. 

This conference is emphasizing projections of the next 50 years of exploration—of air, of space, of the deep oceans.  If imagine such a conference in 2061 for MIT’s bicentennial, or 2069 for Purdue’s, who’s going to be sitting on those panels?  Probably not people I work with now.  Most likely, it’s going to be someone who’s very young (or maybe not even born yet), who will get inspired and excited by the promise of exploring and learning things that were previously unimagined.  I have no idea, but I would like to hope that maybe one of them gets to say, “I remember this Purdue professor named Caldwell talked about how much he got excited about his research and interests in space flight team performance, and I learned how much I could enjoy being an explorer using science and engineering.”  As several professors on a panel just said, every research project is a journey, and each new opportunity to reflect and imagine is a potential exploration and transformation.  That’s a good reason to keep trying, and keep connecting, and keep exploring.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Back Home Again / Indiana Yuri's Night

Returning from my trip to South Africa late on Friday, April 8 didn't give me lots of time to turn around for the next INSGC activity--our annual Affiliates' meeting on April 12-13.  We have our Affiliates' meetings every year, in sites that rotate around Indiana, but April 12 was a special date that we had decided to share and experience at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.  So, after our initial partnership discussions and presentations at the Fairfield hotel across the street, we came over for a party.  Not just any party, though--Yuri's Night.  You see, April 12 is a landmark date in human history, and April 12, 2011 was an especially significant one--the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's first human trip to orbit the earth in a spacecraft.  In addition, this was the 30th anniversary of STS-1, the first flight of the first Space Shuttle (Columbia) on April 12, 1981.  (I can clearly remember that day, as a first-year student at MIT, crowding in the lobby of Building 7, watching the launch on television, and believing that everything was possible.)  So, INSGC hosted a reception and movies at the IMAX Theater, and invited our Affiliates, partners, advisory board members, and dozens of teachers to attend to help us celebrate.  Thanks to Craig Mince of the IMAX Theater (and INSGC Affiliate Director), we got to enjoy encore presentations of "Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D" (which opens with a news report of Gagarin's flight) and "Hubble 3D" (which closes with the imagination of a young girl becoming a commander of a lunar base). 

Yuri's night celebrants at the Indiana State Museum

Thanks to Dr. Dawn Whitaker, we were even dressed for the event--yes, all of the INSGC staff (myself, Dr. Whitaker, Angie Verissimo, and student interns Isa Fritz and Ben Weiss) were outfitted in matching Yuri's night t-shirts that she had found at Think Geek. 

Doesn't Ben look good in his Yuri's Night t-shirt?

As I said, April 12 is a date that I remember in the history of space flight for its life-changing experiences  (well, my eldest was born on April 11, but that's a bit different), and we should really highlight those sorts of experiences.  The Affiliates who couldn't attend were actually celebrating Yuri's Night elsewhere in Indiana: the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrilville was hosting former astronaut Wendy Lawrence at another INSGC supported event organized by the Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana.  "Reaching for the Stars" was the theme, and I can't imagine a better slogan for the day.  In much the same way that Gagarin and others helped fuel the dreams and opportunities for lives such as Capt. Lawrence and others, her presentation can change the lives of others who got to hear her presentation and even ask her a question.

In fact, some of the folks I got to meet at the event were also fantastic examples of how space flight (and Space Grant) can change lives.  Two of the students who presented posters at the event were people that I had met, or who had contacted me, through unexpected and unplanned interactions.  Patrick Cavanaugh came to the INSGC booth at the Indiana State Fair back in 2009; since then, he's been involved in computer engineering projects, received INSGC scholarship support, and is now looking towards graduate education.

Patrick explains his work on computer imaging to Dr. Whitaker.

Gabriela Campos was on track to have an "okay life," as she puts it.  Then, she heard about a summer program for students to get involved with STEM research, and was put in touch with INSGC.  She received some internship funding, and is now also excited and motivated and passionate about her work on MEMS sensors--she talked about the changes in her experiences leading her towards a "fantastic life".  Her enthusiasm is infectious, and wonderful--and an example of why we believe in INSGC. 

Gabriela answers a question about MEMS sensors for Dr. Lee and me.
I really want to thank everyone who attended, including Advisory Board members Chris Foster and Dr. Jordan Lee, and all of the Affiliate Directors and representatives and partners who worked hard with us on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Most of all, I am tremendously grateful to Dawn, and Angie, and Ben, and Isa, for all of their efforts to put together an event that we can be extremely proud to have hosted.  I know that a few teachers came up to me to thank me for having them at this event.  However, the thanks go to them, and to the teachers themselves. 

I am so pleased that INSGC could be involved in these events, and could help to bring excitement and history and imagination and passion to STEM engagement. 

Under African Skies

Please excuse the delays in updating the blog... it's been an extremely hectic month already for Indiana Space Grant. 

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend an international conference on Organizational Design and Management at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.  Apart from my own travel woes, this was a wonderful conference highlighting a range of research in Human Factors and Ergonomics (my own research discipline) from around the world. After the end of the conference, I managed to do two "touristy" things after the end of the conference, but since you already know me to be a STEM geek, you can guess that there will be something about space involved.

Well, you'd be right.  After the last conference session, several of the conference attenders gathered in the parking lot, and we were driven to the Pumba Game Reserve a few kilometers away for an afternoon / evening safari tour.   Perfect weather, too: mostly clear skies, winds about 15 km/hr, temperature about 24C.  (Yes, the rest of the world uses metric units.  We should get used to it.)  I took multiple pictures of the South African Big 5 (lion, elephant, cheetah, rhinoceros, water buffalo) and many antelope species in a large reserve, and even had dinner in a lodge that is not fenced off from the rest of the reserve.  (We were not visited by any of the local residents, but it was very cool to understand that we could have been.)  I did my dissertation research (group dynamics) on the organizational culture and human-environment interactions of park rangers, so even the part of the tour to listen to the rangers describe their experience of the reserve and the personalities of the animals was research-cool for me.   I don't normally do natural science research, but clearly the study of ecologies and population dynamics and biodiversity are important areas of managing a game reserve. 

But, after dinner, I got even more treats.  Nightfall came quickly (there is also a bit of getting used to the concept that the sun is always in the north, rather than the south), and to look up in the Eastern Cape region north of Port Elizabeth  was an experience I'd never had before, and already miss.  There were so many stars I'd never seen before!  Not only from the perspective of dark skies (it's hard to get a similar level of clarity and distance from light pollution anywhere in the eastern US), but also the moon phase (waxing crescent, not above the horizon so early in the evening).  Of course, there were also many stars and constellations I'd never seen before, such as Crux, Puppis, and the Southern Triangle.  The Milky Way was gorgeous, and even the familiar sight of Orion was new and different--Orion's belt high in the sky, as the constellation was setting early in the evening.  (Of course--we in the Northern Hemisphere see Orion poking his head above the horizon during this time of year... watching him duck his head below the horizon was a considerably reorienting experience.) 

Normally, I don't know all of this stuff.  But, I had one of the most wonderful apps on my iPhone that helped me appreciate all of this.  If you haven't seen it yet, find it and get it: Star Walk (available for iPhone, iPad, and even Android) is one of the best done tools for science education and reference I've seen.  It's not just that I could look at a list of constellations.  I could (once I allowed the iPhone to identify its position at roughly 33 deg S, 26 deg E) actually hold the iPhone up over my head, and it would show the star map and constellations right where I was looking!  It was so cool, I had several other people come up and look at it as well.  Way neat.

The next day, before leaving Grahamstown, I was able to visit the Galpin Observatory Museum, also home of the only Victorian Camera Obscura in the Southern Hemisphere.  Henry Galpin was an amateur scientist (particularly astronomy and optics) of note, and he was both interested in stargazing and clocks (his main profession was watchmaking and chronometry). 

So, without meaning to, I was able to link 19th Century astronomy to 21st Century astronomy, with the ability to see a very similar sky through new eyes.  The camera obscura itself allowed me to also connect past to present and future: originally, the camera might have been used to locate Mr. Galpin, Dr. Atherstone, or others in the community.  (We have apps for that now, too.) 

Yes, it would be a very long trip to go to Grahamstown just to see this exhibit.  But the point to me is, science technology and engineering are everywhere; mathematics is in everything; if you look and try to experience them, you can be enriched and educated and excited at any time. 

With South Africa behind me, the next experience was a lot closer to home...