Teaching Rocket Science

Space Exploration is something that I have always been passionate about. During my career I have had the opportunity to work on many spacecraft programs and I still get a kick out of it, so when my son's STEM teacher asked if I would present a topic from my professional background I settled on teaching the core engineering process to solve a space exploration problem. As a teaching aid, I used the game "Kerbal Space Program" as a simulator that the students would use to solve the problem. In the game players need to design, create and launch spacecraft for a race of little green men called the "Kerbals".

The actual goal of the class was to teach the core engineering processes - Requirements, Design, Construction, Test and Evaluation. During the class we began with the problem statement (Requirements) and then went through an exercise of requirements elaboration so that they could learn how to figure out what needs to be done. While elaborating the requirements they learned about the rocket science and space domain - what theories apply to this realm and how they influence the solution we develop.

The first design that the kids came up with (the simplest thing that might work) was a huge booster. Once we had built the booster, a volunteer test pilot agreed to attempt to fly our rocket into space - he failed, but fortunately no lives were lost. In evaluating our first test flight the students identified that the rocket became unstable about 1 minute into flight. Revisiting the design phase we tried to solve the problem by adding some fins and a control system to help the rocket remain stable during its ascent. On the second flight test we then learned that the rocket lacked sufficient energy and failed to achieve orbit.

The third design attempt introduced the concept of staging - by making a heavier rocket, it became possible to achieve orbit using the same amount of fuel, because we learned that we could reduce our total weight by dropping off the heavy first stage. On the third attempt the students were able to achieve our objective, we placed a Kerbal into orbit and brought him home again.

The problem statement (thanks President Kennedy) was to "place a Kerbal into orbit, collect science data and return him safely to Kerbin (his home planet)". Like every problem domain, the students had a lot to handle - Thrust to Weight Ratio, Delta-V, Power, Re-Entry etc. To be successful they needed to divide the problem into parts and then solve the problem one element at a time. Being able to master this approach vastly improved their chance of success.

At the end of the class we held an evaluation session. The students learned that the customer had a new goal - to land a "Kerbal" on the Mun (aka Moon)! But achieving that goal is an exercise for them to pursue on their own. I had a great time teaching the core engineering approach to a new generation, to inspire a passion for exploration, invention and creativity. To teach them how to see the big picture and then break it down into smaller pieces that can be solved one piece at a time. This is the secret to learning any new domain which is why InfoFUSION has been solving problems in new domains every year for the past 17 years. It was fun to share the secret of our success to the next generation.

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