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NASA leaders discuss robotics with students

January 29, 2013


Nine-year-old Mason Smith caught one of NASA’s top engineers off guard.

Mason, a fourth grader at Ward-Stewart Elementary School, said he developed a science fair project comparing neodymium magnets to ceramic magnets and found that ceramic magnets retained magnetism better at higher temperatures, particularly 500 degrees Fahrenheit. He was surprised to find that NASA’s Curiosity rover used neodymium magnets, he said, so he asked Adam “Elvis” Steltzner, one of the NASA engineers who lead the rover’s mission to Mars, for an explanation during a question and answer panel.

Steltzner answered Mason personally later — he said the rover’s temperature doesn’t get high enough to require ceramic magnets’ higher heat tolerance — but during the panel, the specificity of the question surprised him, and he found it to be slightly outside his field of specialization.

“You stumped me,” Steltzner said. “Well done.”

Steltzner and his fellow Curiosity mission leader Bobak “Mohawk” Ferdowsi answered questions from elementary, middle and high school students from across the state Tuesday morning at Mississippi State University’s Colvard Student Union ballroom.

This outreach event preceded Steltzner and Ferdowsi’s Tuesday evening presentation to MSU students and the public in the same location. Middle and high school Boosting Science Engineering and Technology (BEST) robotics teams also demonstrated their robots’ capabilities for Steltzner and Ferdowsi during the morning event, and Steltzner said he was impressed with what he saw.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have anything like this,” Steltzner said. “I think that kids nowadays are pretty lucky, and these kids in particular are just delightful. They’re bright, they’re (inventive) and I think they’ve got bright futures. They just had fantastic questions.”

Representatives from MSU’s Bagley College of Engineering also gave a presentation on the university’s own robotics research, including research on human-robot interaction. Warren Smith, a student at Armstrong Middle School, said he enjoyed this presentation.

“We got to see this really cool robot that they had,” Warren said. “The facts on human-robot interaction and getting to show middle schoolers (the BEST) robot that we built, I really enjoyed it.”

Nathan Barlow, a student at Starkville High School, said he, too, enjoyed the BCE presentation, because it showed how robotics’ applications are growing into such fields as crime prevention and sociology. He was also happy to hear from Steltzner and Ferdowsi, he said.

“Today’s program was great because it allowed us to see the people behind the Curiosity rover,” Nathan said. It’s very cool that they brought this huge national project and showed it to us here in Mississippi.”

Denise Adair, one of the faculty coaches for the Millsaps BEST robotics team, said Steltzner and Ferdowsi are relatable in a way that sends young students a valuable message. For instance, “Elvis” Steltzner and “Mohawk” Ferdowsi earned their nicknames with distinctive hairstyles seen in footage of the Curiosity landing mission, and they retained those hairstyles during their MSU visit.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for these kids to learn that anybody who has a real interest in engineering and science and robotics can certainly become successful in those endeavors,” Adair said. “These guys show that they’re just regular guys, and they’re in there doing it.”

Ferdowsi said he encouraged students present at the outreach program to pursue their passions in engineering. He also said they should not worry if they do not yet know where exactly their passions lie, because he lived with that uncertainty for many years himself.

“My own approach (was to) take everything as an apprenticeship sort of experience,” Ferdowsi said. “I didn’t even know, really, when I started this job what I would enjoy (most). I didn’t know where I wanted to go. There are so many parts to engineering. Try a bunch of stuff, and see what … fits. There are going to be parts of whatever you work on (that are) a lot of work, so if you’re not excited about it, it’s going to be really hard to do. That’s the part that’s going to get you through the harder part of school and your job later.”

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