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Science And Nature

A new solution to teach science (op-ed)

A young girl looks at a model of the solar system.

A girl paints a style of the solar system.(Image credit: Imgorthand/Getty Images)

All over the world, in all the very best university engineering programs, students encounter at some time a class not the same as all of the others. This is actually the engineering design class, within which, rather than being tested as individuals on the mastery of lectures and texts, the class is challenged to are a team to create a complex engineering system with the capacity of meeting a hard group of requirements.

For instance, an aerospace engineering class may be tasked to create a fresh high-performance, low-cost fighter aircraft, with speed, range, ceiling, maneuverability, weaponry, survivability, and producibility capabilities all exceeding specified lower limits. Typically, the class might then divide into subgroups, with each assigned for the best answers to critical areas, such as for example aerodynamics, propulsion, weaponry, structures, and cost.

Inevitability, the very best solutions in each area will conflict with all the current rest. For instance, better engines would maximize the aircraft’s speed, but eliminate mass that may be useful for more weapons or stronger structures, and improving anything more often than not results in higher costs. So trades have to be made to look for a compromise that hopefully enables the very best aircraft overall. This is a deeply creative process, that is sometimes intensified further insurance firms classes from different universities all focus on exactly the same design problem, and compete their designs against one another in intercollegiate tournaments.

Related: Curious Kids: Can you really see what’s happening in distant solar systems now?

A headshot of Robert Zurbin of the Mars Society

Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society. His latest book, “The Case for Space (opens in new tab),” was recently published by Prometheus books. Robert has invented technologies for space propulsion and exploration, authored over 200 technical papers, and was an associate of Lockheed Martin’s “scenario development team” tasked with producing new approaches for space exploration.

I graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics, and taught secondary school science and math for quite some time before I returned to graduate school to become an engineer. In consequence I did so not encounter an engineering design class until after I have been a teacher. When I did so, it immediately struck me that engineering design classes could give a terrific methodology for teaching science in high schools aswell.

I didn’t do anything about any of it for four decades, but come early july I used my position as head of the Mars Society to provide the idea a go. So in April, we made a public announcement that summer the Mars Society would provide a six-week Mars mission design class and contest, available to students all over the world. We set an admission fee of $50, low enough to create it affordable to just about anyone, but high enough to help keep out freeloaders.

Everything will be done by zoom, making location irrelevant, but teams were organized roughly by time zone, to facilitate intra-team collaboration. Forty students registered, who were split into five teams. Team 1 was from Europe and the center East, which its largest contingent from Poland. Team 2 was from India and East Asia. Teams 3, 5, and 6 were from western, eastern, and central time zone THE UNITED STATES respectively. (Team 4 didn’t workout, so its members were divided on the list of rest.).

The class began with fourteen days of lectures from twelve different experts focusing on various areas of Mars mission design, which range from astrobiology and geology alive support and nuclear engineering. This is to supply background knowledge. However, we made no try to coordinate the messages delivered by each expert right into a party line. A few of the viewpoints, and suggested readings provided by the lecturers were frankly contradictory. But that’s how it really is in real life. It was around the students to straighten out what made probably the most sense.

A slide detailing the life support requirements for a Mars settlement.

A slide detailing the life span support requirements for a Mars settlement. (Image credit: Thanks to Robert Zubrin)

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Then with this particular background knowledge at hand, the look teams visited work. The issue these were given was to create a human Mars mission with the best possible scientific return assuming a transportation system with the capacity of delivering around 30 metric tons and a crew as high as six visitors to the top of Mars. It had been around the teams to find out their landing site, the science objectives, the crew size, skills, and equipment, and duration of the stay, with around 18 months allowable. They had to create their exploration plan and almost all their equipment accordingly.

Much like worthwhile design problem, these requirements contradicted one another. For instance, to first order, a more substantial crew with the longest possible stay time on Mars maximizes the mission exploration capability. However the consumables and accommodations necessary to support them eliminate mass that may be useful for more extensive equipment, for instance pressurized rovers or piloted helicopters which could greatly expand the crew’s effective exploratory range.

The look challenge specifically excluded consideration of the interplanetary exploration system. The latter is NASA‘s obsession, to the exclusion of the mission’s scientific purpose. This is why the area agency’s human Mars mission designs which involve 30-day surface stays directed to the scientifically least interesting areas – are completely absurd. But there is absolutely no point likely to Mars if you don’t can do something helpful when you make it happen. The objective of the mission must come first, with mission and systems designs following.

The students took to the challenge with gusto, spending three weeks spending so much time within their teams, with reduced guidance from coaches assigned to each team, to build up and article their designs.

An illustration of a settlement on Mars.

An illustration of funds on Mars. (Image credit: Thanks to Robert Zubrin)

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Then came enough time for the shootout, which occurred over three days. On the initial day, each team had 30 minutes to provide their designs to a panel of expert judges. That’s how college engineering design contests are ordinarily done. But we through in a spin. The teams received 30 minutes each on the next day to rip apart the designs of these competitors. Then we’d a third day where each team had to be able to defend its design contrary to the attacks from the others.

A slide from one of the team's presentations outlining the science objectives of their proposed Mars mission.

A slide in one of the team’s presentations outlining the science objectives of these proposed Mars mission. (Image credit: Thanks to Robert Zurbin)

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This latter procedure isn’t customary in university engineering design contests. Nonetheless it approximates how things happen in real life. In real life, once you propose a design solution for a NASA mission or technology need, you have competitors on the market who make an effort to tear you down. (Trust me on this. I understand.) The procedure of attack and defense inside our contest was a little more civilized than whatever occurs between competitors in the cutthroat free market, because inside our contest adversarial critics had to create their attacks openly, instead of behind their targets’ backs. But nonetheless, the resulting intellectual dust-up provided scope for the youngsters to invoke their competitive instincts, plus they loved it.

The outcomes were amazing. All of the teams delivered work that has been way above senior high school level. You don’t have to take my word for this. The entire course (opens in new tab), including videos of the expert lectures, the teams’ design presentations, attacks and defenses can be looked at online (opens in new tab).

Needless to say, not everyone could win. The east coast American team took first prize for science, the western American team won decisively on engineering, the Asian team took the human factors design prize, and the Europeans who thought creatively on how best to reduce overall program expense by generating income- ran away with the prize on cost. While only winning one category, the Asian team also placed well of all of others, therefore won the contest overall.

I really believe that what occurred in this class is worth broad attention. Its value goes way beyond the course’s direct effect on a small band of students (and hopefully NASA Mars mission designs!) It gets the potential to create educational history. The engineering design differs from conventional classes by not only asking students to understand some material for a test, but to place their knowledge into action by working as a team to create some complex engineering system. In so doing, it reverses the traditional relationship of students to scientific knowledge. Rather than knowledge being truly a burden (“Just how much of the will we have to know for the test?”) it becomes an instrument, or perhaps a magic sword in the event that you will (“There has to be an easier way to get this done. We have to think it is!”)

By delivering because they did, the students showed that same creative methodology could be brought into high schools. Furthermore, they showed the worthiness of debate. In true to life, design engineering is really a contact sport. So is pure science, for example. Think about the uproar on the recent claims designed for biosignatures in the Venus atmosphere, or the 1996 Alan Hills meteorite claims, or the outcomes of the Viking life detection experiments performed on Mars in 1976. Science is never settled. Scientists and engineers have to be in a position to defend their ideas. To provide students an opportunity to understand how science really makes its way forward, they must be given an opportunity to mix it up themselves.

If you have time, please take a glance and see at how it went. The youngsters had a great time, and the outcomes were grand. We have been certainly likely to repeat.

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Dr. Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society. His latest book, “The Case for Space (opens in new tab),” was recently published by Prometheus books. Robert has invented technologies for space propulsion and exploration, authored over 200 technical papers, and was an associate of Lockheed Martin’s “scenario development team” tasked with producing new approaches for space exploration.

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