Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Informed and Engaged, Part 2: Dr. Rendezvous

This has certainly been the time to be involved with INSGC on the Purdue campus.  As we were getting ready for the Tyson lecture, I received another quiet request.  Could INSGC help bring *another* distinguished guest to campus for a public lecture?  I was reminded of discussions with Angie and Dawn to learn to say no, and to remember that we don't have lots of money available, but I decided to ask anyway.  I was told who, and quickly responded: INSGC would be honored to help sponsor the visit of Dr. Buzz Aldrin to speak on his vision for space exploration, including Mission(s) to Mars.  

I cannot express my thrill at being able to attend this lecture, and be part of a welcoming dinner beforehand.  This is, of course, Dr. Rendezvous, the first astronaut with a doctorate, and the second human to set foot on the moon.  But the person whom I met, shared a few words, and listened to his conversations was engaging on another level.  He could speak on a variety of topics, sometimes tiny tidbits, sometimes grand surveys of the tides of history.  Notable and noteworthy.  But even since my prior experience of Dr. Aldrin (two years ago at an MIT event), I saw something that I hadn't expected to see.  Graciousness and passion.  A sense of humor, as well as a need to share and communicate across the generations.  Even a joke about him sounding amazingly like Neil Armstrong.

A simple picture doesn't do justice to the feeling of inspiration that I got from the talk.  Fortunately, I was able to take some fairly good ones, as I found myself sitting right behind Dr. Aldrin after his entrance, and while Dean Leah Jamieson introduced him.

Listening to him talk about both the science and the social systems of space travel, I recognized an unavoidable element:  this is what incessant curiosity and indefatigable passion can do, and be.  I could go on about the Cyclers, but he was extremely elegant and supportive to say that a Purdue AAE grad student had extended, and even improved upon, his longstanding work.  (High praise indeed.)  He bowed to and acknowledged Jim Longuski, with whom he's collaborated for 25 years (and who helps others learn to Think Like a Rocket Scientist).   He talked about STEM Education, and the role of STEM as being valuable for everyone on Earth.  It's not just that I grew up wanting to be like Buzz Aldrin.  It's that I felt that Dr. Aldrin was now speaking to a shared passion, and a recognition of what is needed for the future.  

Afterwards, he stayed to sign the Mission to Mars books.  He signed them all.  This is not to be ignored.  Over 800 books were sold at Purdue, and others attending the lecture brought their copies as well.   Past 11:00, he was still signing books, with kind words and gestures and jokes with the attendees.  ("He told me he liked my sweater!")  I stayed around for a while just to watch the happy faces and renewed enthusiasm from the folks as they emerged from the signing area in the Purdue Memorial Union.  That was feeding enough for me.  (It also helped that I had already been gifted with a signed copy of the book. Thanks, Mike.  You've done pretty well already as an INSGC alumnus, talking about the future of spaceflight and space operations.)  

Thank you, Dr. Aldrin, for reaffirming why this INSGC leadership, and STEM Engagement, is such a significant part of what I must be doing right now.

Informed and Engaged (from Director's Notes, INSGC Observer)

This morning, I made some people happy.  Because INSGC was one of the sponsors of the Neil DeGrasse Tyson lecture on September 19 (see other stories, this issue), I was (unexpectedly) provided with some additional tickets for the lecture.  Two members of the staff in my IE department had asked if I might be able to find them a seat, and I brought them the tickets this morning.  What pleased and enthused me the most is the level of excitement and pleasure they demonstrated when receiving the tickets. 

This is a great example of the positive experience that we at INSGC can bring to others when we support opportunities for STEM engagement.  As I have previously mentioned in my Director’s Blog (http://insgc-bc.blogspot.com/2013/08/locally-grown.html), the challenge may in fact be to identify what do our customers / prospective partners / students want to learn, do, or share.  Sometimes it is about going out to them; other times, it’s bringing them in to help us understand what excites them.  One INSGC-led project is attempting to take this approach within the context of a “research experiences for teachers” project.  Research (to me) is a grand exploration and scouting process.  There is a process of providing information about facts and formulae and functions, but real research is not just about piling those facts up.  It’s about having tools to go out and solve problems, and make sense of a context that you didn’t previously understand… perhaps a context no one has previously understood.   The process of education is not a passive one, as most inspired (and inspiring) teachers will tell you.  In my research group’s blog (http://grouperlab.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/eaten-up-with-curiosity/) , I recently wrote about being “eaten up with curiosity,” as Rudyard Kipling described Rikki-Tikki the mongoose. 

So, what does that sort of experience look like—the well-informed, effectively-engaged, continuously curious citizen as researcher?  Well, we have a historical grand exploration and scouting process, which set out from Indiana (Clarksville) in October 1803: The Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark.  Now, you would never send out people into the vast unexplored wilderness unprovisioned.  For the Corps, it was medicine and gunpowder and cartography equipment and notebooks: things to go exploring, and make notes, and bring back descriptions of what you found.  For an informed, engaged person, the provisions of research are equally important: analysis skills, mathematical techniques, understanding of physical properties and laws.  But no one would confuse the provisions for the expedition.  They are simply tools to allow you to do a better job exploring.  What’s out there?  What do we want to know?  How do we bring that experience back to others?  That’s a bit harder, especially when the territory is vast and your experience is greatly limited.  (There’s an ocean out there, or some magical destination that may or may not really exist.  Even after the Corps returned, it was hard for most people to believe things like the Badlands, or the Rockies, or the herds of bison, really existed—the explorers had experienced things far outside of the previous experience of those in the United States in 1806.)  And this is always a challenge of the researcher.  How do you share what you’ve seen and learned with others?

That is one way that I appreciate and enjoy Dr. Tyson: he engages people to do the exploration that they can, and he provides them with provisions to do more exploration if they choose.  The stories are accessible, and interesting, and entertainingly presented.  And it helps that stars are visible to lots of us, and we want to tell stories about them.  But Dr. Tyson doesn’t just entertain.  His informative examples are also powerful tools and provisions, useful for a journey of discovery.  I have come to see how vitally important it is to find out which exploration journey a person wants to take, and provision them for that journey, as well as other potential journeys and side trips not yet envisioned.  (One challenge that a high school teacher has, that I don’t have in my university lectures, is that I can make a better guess as to the range of journeys that an Industrial Engineering undergrad will be ready to take after I have tried to provision them with project design or statistics.  It’s still a pretty large range of journeys, so I better make sure my provisions will last, and they don’t leak away or rot over the years to come.) 

I love the process of exploration.  Through my career I have noted that more information, about more subjects, means more provisions that help me discover and document and describe more about those territories I encounter along the way.  Sometimes the information is challenging and new, but that’s okay.  Skis and snowshoes don’t seem to be that useful along the Ohio River in September and October, but I can be glad to acquire them along the way to North Dakota, or learn how to make them when I need them.  If it is our job to teach the excitement of exploration, and not just the excitement a specific person has for a specific subject, there is an added responsibility to learn about a variety of journeys, and get people ready and well-provisioned for those.  I’m pleased that INSGC is able to help with West Lafayette events this fall that excite and engage both kids (Dr. Kaboom, Purdue Space Day) and adults (Dr. Tyson and other general public visits by astronauts).  A broad set of offerings provides our audiences with a range of information and a span of topics that increase the value for more people, regardless of their area of interest.  In other words, a rich stock of provisions for a explorers set off on a variety of journeys of discovery and experience.