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

Students Mentoring Students

Stephen Bradley is an Associate Professor in Visual Arts at UMBC.


Masonville Cove is 70 acres of water and 54 acres of cleaned-up wetlands, nature trails, and a protected bird sanctuary, on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, Baltimore City owned by the Maryland Port Authority.  At this former industrial and then abandoned area in south Baltimore, local residents and schoolchildren (from Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, and Cherry Hill) can now connect with their natural environment and participate in environmental stewardship projects through the Masonville Cove Education Environmental Center, a joint project with the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Coalition (Baybrook), the Living Classrooms Foundation, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

My UMBC students and I have been working with students at nearby Benjamin Franklin High School, creating art projects rooted in the community, including animated films documenting debris  found in the neighborhood near Masonville Cove.  In late February 2013, I met with the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center (MCEEC) staff  to discuss a mural project for the base of a storm drain near the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center main building.  We enlisted a group of UMBC, Towson and Benjamin Franklin High School (BFHS) art students to design the project and execute the mural during the MCEEC annual Environmental Festival held in mid-May.

The most important aspect and at times the most challenging was maintaining the high school students’ focus on the design process of the mural that required critical discussions about the content and the style of the mural.  At the same time it was important not to squash the creative process or to be discouraged by the various obstacles we faced during each visit to the high school.


The other challenge for the university art students was how best to mentor the high school students. These students often have an unusual level of stress in their lives, which is partly normal for most high school students, but in this community the levels of stress are abnormally higher due to the numerous challenges the community faces.

Every Friday morning for two months, a handful of UMBC students worked on the design and painting techniques for the mural.  This also involved a site visit to MCEEC to photograph the location and to learn about the mission of the environmental center. Students worked on various designs for the mural that would remind the visitors to MCEEC of the fragile ecology of the place and to improve the visual landscape.   We began with general guidelines and ideas from the MCEEC staff, then presented the ideas to the BFHS, UMBC and Towson students._DSC9100-mural

They enthusiastically began to work and soon had a series of drawings and small paintings that we presented to MCEEC. They gave us feedback for modifications.  Through this process the university students discovered that it was helpful to create smaller creative brainstorming sessions that mentored the students through their stress who were able to return to the design process with a fresh start. On May 20, we began painting the mural in stages. Our team worked for two solid days but had to postpone the final stage due to stormy weather. The university students found themselves talking and making art with the BFHS students working through their anxiety and contending with other obstacles they face in their lives.  Once the students worked through these issues, they were able to move to the task of designing the mural.


By June 15, with the assistance of two dedicated UMBC students and myself, we completed the mural.   The project gave the BFHS students confidence to show that they can improve their neighborhoods.  The UMBC and Towson students learned that the creative process can be a catalyst for civic agency.


Contact the author, Stephen Bradely at

What Remains? Baltimore Neighborhoods in Transition (9/19)

Michelle Stefano, folklorist in residence for UMBC’s department of American studies, coordinates the Maryland Traditions program for the Maryland State Arts Council.

Michelle StefanoWhat are the impacts of post-industrial change at the community level? Whether industrial landscapes – the temples to the long-standing and once thriving US manufacturing enterprise – are re-purposed or destroyed, what lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew them best?

The decline, dismantling, and disappearance of the many industries across the US deeply affects the towns, cities, and regions in which they were situated and the local communities with which they were intimately related. I believe understanding the effects of these post-industrial transitions, especially with respect to the relationships between community and place in both historical and contemporary contexts, is key to ensuring economically, environmentally, and culturally sustainable futures for American communities.

Sparrows Point 3

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

Nonetheless, when we hear about these stories of plants, mills and factories closing, it is often through the language of economics; statistics reflecting jobs lost, the rise in unemployment and the crumbling of local businesses tend to mask the more personal, or human, elements of such change. In this light, the panel, What Remains? Baltimore Neighborhoods in Transition (Thursday 9/19, 4:30 p.m., Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery) seeks to spotlight the stories and memories – the intangible remnants of post-industrialization – of the communities of two historically interrelated and, yet, geographically separate areas: Baybrook, a group of six ethnically and racially diverse industrial neighborhoods in the southern peninsula of Baltimore City and the Sparrows Point Steel Mill area of Dundalk, situated just across the southwestern city border in Baltimore County. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Baltimore area residents (and beyond) have been shaped by these industrial centers, and the significance of them – from the personal and shared perspectives of those who knew them best – does not disappear as quickly.

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

(Photo: UMBC New Media Studio)

Panel participants are both UMBC researchers and members of the Baybrook and Sparrows Point Steel Mill communities. Deborah Rudacille (English), who grew up in Dundalk, will reflect on the changes she has seen in the Sparrows Point area, drawing also from her oral history research for the book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town. Steve Bradley (Visual Arts) and Nicole King (American Studies) will discuss their work in Baybrook, funded in part through the BreakingGround initiative, focusing on the mapping of places of both historical and contemporary importance, as well as the stories and memories associated with them. Bill Shewbridge (Media and Communication Studies/the New Media Studio) and I will highlight our work in the Sparrows Point area, Mill Storiesa collection of digital stories that aim to amplify the voices, experiences, and importance of the Mill to a wider public. Community members include Jason Reed, who is involved with environmental justice projects in Baybrook, and Troy Pritt and Eddie Bartee, who worked at Sparrows Point for numerous years. Eddie is a third generation Sparrows Point steelworker who grew up in the company town, which was situated in the middle of the Mill complex and was razed in the 1970s. Denise Meringolo (History), whose research has focused on community-based public history practice, particularly in Baltimore, will moderate the discussion.

Contact the author, Michele Stefano, at

Students ‘Mapping Baybrook’

Collin Wojciechowski ’13, political science and media and communication studies, served as the sole student member of the University System of Maryland’s governing Board of Regents, 2011-2012.

Curtis Bay, nestled at the southernmost point of Baltimore City is where my ancestors immigrated from Poland in 1904. It’s where my grandparents grew up, and it’s what I dream of when I think of community.

It was a place where hard working blue-collar people made their living and their homes. Classic Baltimore row homes sat against a backdrop of factories and cranes that dotted the waterfront, and the beer was always cold when the work day ended. There was one movie theater, one bowling alley, one pharmacy, and a youth baseball game was the hottest ticket in town on a Saturday night. People cared for each other and looked out for one another. They volunteered to snuff out tyranny at the dawn of the Second World War and returned home to build this country to what it is today. They were the backbone of America. The persevering prevailing force. The salt of the earth. [Read more…]