Last month, I had the good fortune to teach a course on the basics of space systems analysis. The catch? The students were a group of gifted middle- and high-schoolers. This came about through an annual program run by Purdue’s Gifted Education Resource Institute, where high-achieving schoolchildren spend part of their summer holidays at Purdue, taking short two-week classes in various subjects offered by Purdue staff and faculty. It’s always seemed like a neat opportunity, so this year I volunteered to teach a course I called “Destination: Space”. My mission was to figure out how to teach a dozen 13-year-olds the fundamentals of spaceflight and engineering analysis. Unsurpurprisingly, I underestimated the difficulty of this somewhat ambitious undertaking, but in the end I was quite blown away by how much the students were able to learn and accomplish.

The overall objective of the course was for each student to develop a high-level systems analysis of a space mission of his or her choosing. The idea was to come up with a concept, and perform a simple but relatively credible feasibility analysis, outlining mission parameters and requirements. Each day, we covered a different topic – orbits, launch vehicles, payloads, instrumentation, etc. – and by the end of of the class, the students were able to present their findings to an audience consisting of grad students from the AAE department, other camp participants, and a colleague of mine from NASA Glenn.

As one might expect, the final presentations varied in their overall quality, but I was uniformly impressed with the scope of the students’ projects, which varied from a Mars colonization mission to hydrogen mining on Saturn. Several of the students were able to present very believable numbers for their mass estimates and mission timelines, work which seemed easily worthy of a college under

graduate. I was delighted to see how resourceful the students were and how eager they were to learn and synthesize new ideas. I think – or at least hope – that each of them found something valuable from my class, if only an appreciation for the vast complexity of spaceflight and the

multifaceted demands of engineering. I certainly walked away with a renewed appreciation for teaching and a pleasant reminder of how much I value the work done by aerospace engineers around the world – two sentiments that I’m sure will linger at the back of my mind as I start to plan out my career beyond Purdue.


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