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NASA Partnership Promotes STEM Concepts In ENC


An innovative program in northeastern North Carolina is hoping to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM related fields. The partnership between NASA and Elizabeth City State University is creating a mobile classroom that will travel and teach across numerous school districts. Sarah Finch has more on this unique project and how it will influence today’s youth.

We used to think STEM jobs, those requiring a science, technology, engineering, or math degree, were just for doctors, engineers or astronauts. But it’s so much more than that. As students search for a career these days, they are finding a variety of high-paying, high-demand STEM jobs including Zoologist, Software Developer, Market Research Analyst, Conservation Scientist and Nuclear Engineer. These positions pay approximately $100,000 dollars a year, almost double the average U.S. salary.  Elizabeth City State University Department of Technology Chair and Aviation Science Program Director Dr. Kuldeep Rawat says in recent years there has been a focus on cultivating STEM concepts at an early age.

“In fact in the United States alone, STEM jobs are going to grow twice as fast as other fields. And there is a huge shortage of people entering these fields.”

In an effort to meet future workforce needs, NASA is funding grant programs in schools across the country. They believe it is vital to prepare students to pursue advanced degrees, thereby helping close the gap between education and critical career fields.  NASA Education Program Specialist Priscilla Mobley says STEM education is crucial for any nation.

“If the United States is going to maintain its global leadership and stay in a competitive position, then we need to motivate our students to pursue these STEM fields.”

Mobley is also the Aerospace Academy Activities Manager for MUREP - Minority University Research and Education Project.

“MUREP is managed out of NASA headquarters. The team is responsible for developing agency wide policies that will enhance the involvement of all minority institutions in NASA’s missions.”

Elizabeth City State University was one of those minority institutions that applied for a MUREP grant. Their proposal included an outreach component that ultimately got them noticed during the highly competitive application process.  ECSU’s Dr. Rawat says the intent is to improve college readiness, so that students are prepared to enter areas of higher learning.

“The whole idea is that we want to reach out to the students. We will take the lab and the STEM education to them. We can have the Aerospace Education lab not in the class, but in a mobile facility.”

Only nine universities in the United States were chosen to receive the MUREP grant to set up their own Aerospace Academy sites. Elizabeth City State University says their project means a grant of nearly $350,000 for a 3-year period and they hope to reach up to 1,000 students annually.

ECSU is also working closely with an existing NASA Aerospace Academy site at nearby Warren County High School. NASA approved the partnership to create and operate an Aerospace Academy on wheels. This mobile lab will provide hands-on learning through programs such as flight simulators, robotics, bio engineering and rocketry.

“It makes us feel really proud. And also gives us a tremendous opportunity to serve our community. And while doing that, we know that we can increase the number of students who will be better prepared to enter STEM related degrees in college.”

The current program for younger students offered at Warren County High School has been the only Aerospace Academy site in the state until now. Jerome Williams, the Warren County NASA Aerospace Academy Director, used to be a researcher at NASA Langley, but has been in public education for the last 25 years. He said he anticipated a need for more STEM programs a decade ago.

“Students tend to be bored when people talk to them all the time. They have to be tactile and kinesthetic. Meaning that they have to be doing something. If you can give them a purpose not just to pass a test, but just a purpose, they tend to produce. That’s one of the hallmarks of STEM, it encourages creativity. It’s not just sitting down and being a passive learner, you have to be an active learner.”

Warren County’s Aerospace Academy site offers expanded programs for students in kindergarten through high school. They participate in a variety of activities that include everything from rocketry to aerospace and the building of model aircraft. Now they are eager to take these STEM programs to over 50 schools in the state while collaborating with ECSU.

“Elizabeth City State University is going to construct this trailer that will have flight simulators, computers and that type of thing. They will actually go to the schools in the northeastern part of North Carolina.”

This particular Aerospace Academy will be housed in a 40 foot trailer that has its own power generator and network connections. Before all the equipment is installed into the unit, the lab-on-wheels will cost approximately $50,000 dollars.

Inside this interactive workshop, there are plans for ten different stations including a wind tunnel, aircraft design, a 3D printer, physics experiments and a flight simulator. The trailer’s exterior will be customized with participating logos such as NASA, ECSU and STEM. All of this technology will then be hooked up to a truck, as it travels across 21 school districts to promote student engagement in STEM methods.

Lots of people hear about science, technology, engineering and math concepts, but don’t know how to apply them to the real-life challenges we face today. STEM Literacy is all about understanding these disciplines and implementing them for a greater outcome.  NASA’s Mobley says that these MUREP grant programs will reach a broader group of kids, showing them the reasoning behind what they learn in class.

“Our nation needs to expand the capacity and the diversity of the STEM workforce pipeline in order to prepare more students for better jobs in the future.”

As STEM classes become more popular in North Carolina, there are local groups already taking part in solving complex problems and challenges. Craven County incorporates STEM modules with mission-focused roles into their middle school curriculum. Kids learn about individual responsibilities that will one day transfer into real careers. A recent grant in Pitt County, has allowed their public schools to offer STEM clubs and an upcoming summer camp. And a youth robotics club in Wayne County is implementing STEM concepts to design and build a competition-ready robot from the ground up.  Ninth grader at Rosewood high school and 4-H Robotics FIRST Team 3737 Roto Raptors Safety Captain Jake Volk says it’s a practical but also exciting experience.

“Almost everyone in the club generally wants a job in the STEM field because we’ve all seen how cool it can be and how involved we all are. All the things we work on can directly influence the world.”

And that’s what NASA is hoping to inspire through these MUREP grants, a sense of purpose, mission, influence and teamwork. Warren County Aerospace Academy Director Williams says these methods also foster a better member of society.

"It gives them a sense of citizenship as well. Because no person can do it by themselves. It’s a collaborative effort. In STEM’s education you have that opportunity to incorporate all those necessary skills which makes not only for a good student but a good citizen.”

The projected start date for the Aerospace Academy is January 2nd 2016. As it embarks on its journey, the mobile lab plans to stop for a whole day at each school district in the northeast. If your school is outside of that area, you can still request a visit and schedule a demo by contacting Elizabeth City State University.

A map of ENC counties that will be visited by the mobile lab.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.