By Pamela Greyer, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Pamela Greyer is a K-12 science educator, STEM education consultant and NASA solar system ambassador. She is the former site director of NASA’s Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy Chicago Program and continues to mentor and engage youths in NASA engineering competitions and contests.
In 2004, I became a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educator. At the time, STEM was an emerging concept in the education landscape and just another acronym used by NASA condensed from a series of words.
I had no idea the influence that teaching in the STEM fields would have on my life -- as an educator, on my ability to inspire my students to develop a love of science and most importantly, to introduce my students to and engage them in engineering.
As an inner-city high school science teacher from Chicago, I am always looking for new opportunities to involve my students in STEM learning. I am ecstatic this year because I have a team of high school students entered in NASA’s 19th Annual Great Moonbuggy Race.
The Great Moonbuggy Race is an engineering competition that requires a team of six students to design a “proof-of-concept” wheeled rover that will race over a half mile of simulated lunar terrain. In April, two team members, one male and one female, will drive the completed vehicle in competition at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. This contest will present design challenges that are similar to those encountered by the original lunar rover team. This is the 16th year of competition for high school teams, but it will be the first year for Chicago’s public high school students.
As a rookie team in any competition, the first year is full of excitement, anticipation and fear. For some students on this team, it will be even more complex because of the set of academic skills they will need to successfully design and build a moon buggy.
On the team, there are students who struggle with basic math skills, and some of these high school students are reading at a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade level. I have had a student express a desire to be an engineer, but his high school does not offer a physics class.
Without these skills, measuring and cutting aluminum becomes difficult. There is no machine shop in most high schools. My students have not learned the skills needed to make their own parts.
The team has computer-aided-design software, but without a CAD class in their schools, students must learn the software on their own. Without this knowledge, having students apply geometric principles and shapes to design a moon buggy is difficult.
Making the decision to enter a team in The Great Moonbuggy Race is important to me because I can give my students an after-school opportunity that engages them in engineering in a way that is fun, creative and exciting. It isn’t often my students get to see, let alone talk to, engineers.
As they design their vehicle, they will learn about NASA, the Apollo missions and the moon. They will gain a better understanding of how to solve problems, even in situations where the problem may seem impossible. I can guide them in learning to working together as a team, which is a skill many students resist. I can show them that they can dream as big as they want. There are no limits on where they can go or what they can become.
For the students, it will be a new approach to learning for them. There will be no worksheets and no bell ringers. They will have to think creatively and independently in some situations and innovatively and collaboratively in others.
For some, this competition will give them unparalleled opportunity to reach a goal that is often elusive in a traditional classroom setting. This may be the first time many have left Chicago and for all of them, it will be the first time they will be up close and personal with NASA rockets.
As we begin this journey, there will be mistakes made by everybody on the team. The rookie year is always full of these, but they are in themselves learning opportunities that will help the team grow and evolve. I invite you to follow us on this adventure, which I am sure will be filled with as many bumps, craters and turns as the simulated lunar surface these young people will tackle in the race and watch how every young mind can be inspired to develop an interest and love in STEM “as only NASA can.”
The opinions expressed here are solely those of Pamela Greyer.