NASA Needs Engineers! Transforming Education through STEM

Susan Hoban is a Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director for Academics at the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, Associate Affiliate Professor of Physics, and Honors College Fellow (2011-14) at UMBC.


My background is in the study of comets in our Solar System.  Years ago, when I was teaching undergraduate astronomy, I began to wonder why the students had so much difficulty solving problems.  As I unraveled the thread of that thought, I found myself working with high school educators, trying to help them better understand the processes of science so they could pass their understanding along to their students.  Now I am funded to conduct STEM professional development (focused on the relationship between Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) for K-12 teachers and informal educators.

NASA’s BEST Team (from left to right), Jack O’Malley, Allie O’Malley, Dr. Susan Hoban, Kabish Shah, and Catherine Kruchten.  Not pictured: Dr. Laurie Cook

NASA’s BEST Team (from left to right), Jack O’Malley, Allie O’Malley, Dr. Susan Hoban, Kabish Shah, and Catherine Kruchten. Not pictured: Dr. Laurie Cook
(Photo credit Kabish Shah)

Sometimes, my team and I find ourselves in unusual situations as we train the educators to use our home-grown STEM curriculum.  In one such adventure  we ended up working with over 100 middle school students…and I thought teaching college courses was challenging…

NASA needs engineers.  (In fact, so does America.)  So NASA is taking an interest in developing an educational pipeline that will encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career. On four Sunday afternoons in January, UMBC’s “NASA’s BEST” team, where BEST stands for “Beginning Engineering, Science, and Technology,” brought robotics education to budding engineers in the Howard County Library’s HiTech Program.   The UMBC team is comprised of me as the team lead, senior Kabish Shah (Mechanical Engineering), junior Psychology major Allie O’Malley, instructional designers Dr. Laurie Cook and Catherine Kruchten.  Allie brought her brother, Jack, a senior at Mount Hebron High School in Howard County, because we needed all the helping hands we could find!

HiTech engineer's rover

A HiTech engineer’s rover.
(Photo Credit Kabish Shah)

Seventeen middle school students at HiTech designed and constructed small robots to serve as “seeing-eye robots” for NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars.  The robots are based on the Arduino microcontroller and include an ultra-sonic sensor to provide the capability for the rover to “see” obstacles and avoid them.

The curriculum, called “NASA’s Engineering Exploration Training,” or NExT, uses the Engineering Design Process as its framework.  The young engineers get to design the robot themselves, so each robot is unique.

The Howard County Library received so much positive feedback that they have asked us to come back and run the program again as soon as possible.  We will do that, after we finish our February project – running this program at the Old Mill STEM Middle school in Anne Arundel County.

Engineers at Old Mill STEM Middle School connect the sensors on their robots.

Engineers at Old Mill STEM Middle School connect the sensors on their robots.
(Photo credit Kabish Shah)

As part of the STEM program, we intorduced 100 young engineers to robotics each Friday morning in February, along with two all-day Saturday sessions.

Sometimes, the young engineers get frustrated because the process is complicated.  But as John F. Kennedy said during his famous speech at Rice University in 1962, when he was trying to excite the country about space exploration, “we choose to go to the Moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard!”

It’s truly a team effort. Kabish is the main instructor for the course. This is Kabish’s first time in this role, and he is a natural!  His passion for engineering shines through, and he has a wonderful way with the kids. Allie developed the wiring guide and helped Catherine prepare the instructional materials.  After joining the NASA’s BEST team, Allie has decided to become a teacher, and she is getting real-world experience working with these youngsters.  Laurie, Allie and Kabish spent hours and hours soldering.  Jack was invaluable during the sessions, running from table to table helping with wiring, connecting sensors and assembling chassis.  As team leader, I try to keep track of everybody.

NASA’s BEST is funded by a grant from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Contact the author, Susan Hoban, at


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