August 3, 2017 – Jaquelyn Romano and Lucas Droste are going through a pre-launch checklist, looking over the rocket, its payload, and ground station equipment. The University of Colorado Boulder aerospace seniors are preparing for a key mission: STEM Education.
The pair are launching a three foot model rocket as part of a middle school aerospace curriculum they are designing as interns at Littleton-based Oakman Aerospace, Inc. (OAI). The aerospace startup founded in 2012 focuses on modeling and simulation applications for small satellite systems. Although K-12 learning is not their main business function, it is a high priority for the company to continue to foster more opportunities to get the next generation involved in STEM fields and careers.
While headquartered in Colorado, they saw significant shortcomings in Michigan, where one of their board members lives. This led OAI to partner with the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (EUPISD) and the Michigan Space Grant Consortium to provide educational opportunities for under-privileged regions within the school district.
“Michigan, as a state, is very oriented toward automotive manufacturing, not aerospace. We wanted to show kids that the same fundamentals of STEM that are in automotive engineering are abundant in other advanced industries as well, and that they can be a part of it,” said Alex Dunn, an OAI Aerospace Engineer.
Similarly, even in aerospace-rich Colorado, which has the second largest aerospace economy in the country, Romano said it is not something most kids learn about in school.
“We didn’t do anything with space or aeronautics when I was younger,” Romano said.
Droste agrees, noting his only exposure was in the Boy Scouts, where they launched model rockets. However, the curriculum he and Romano have written is far more involved than what is done in Scouting or even by model rocketry aficionados.
This is not a case of simply igniting an Estes rocket motor with a spark from a few AA batteries, it is a full system design and project based learning curriculum that culminates in a model rocket payload launch to collect flight data for analysis.
“We’re hoping to build excitement about aerospace and teach students a little bit about software and electronics,” Romano said.
The program is a nine week after-school program that teaches middle-high school aged students about the basics of programming, electronic circuits, and aerospace mechanics. By incorporating computer programming, mobile devices, and a rocket payload of small instruments, Droste and Romano have created a curriculum that boils down college level concepts to middle school comprehension. It begins by establishing the fundamentals of computer programming and electronics and progresses through rocket building and payload integration for a final test flight.
“The final test flight includes a payload of sensors to track the flight path of the rocket, air pressure, altitude, temperature, and also has an accelerometer, magnetometer, and gyroscope to collect data to be analyzed by the students post launch,” Droste said.
In addition, the launch itself uses new technology. Students will program a small computer that controls the launch, and actually use their cell phones to wirelessly initiate the countdown.
“We want kids to know smart phones are not just for Candy Crush. You can do cool things once you know how to get into the base code,” Dunn said.
The lesson plan, electronics, and assorted parts will soon go to three schools in the EUPISD, with the goal of further expansion if the program does well. After Michigan, OAI President and Chief Systems Engineer Stanley O. Kennedy, Jr. said they have plans to bring the curriculum to Colorado and eventually nationwide.
“The whole goal of programs like these are to allow youth opportunities to create their own future with the technology that is around us. Giving them the tools to do so is the first step to creating global citizens with an eye for solving the biggest obstacles that await us today and tomorrow,” Kennedy said.
The curriculum development has been just one part of Romano and Droste’s summer internships. Dunn says they have also worked extensively with company’s space modeling and simulation technology as well as product engineering. OAI. considers their summer internships more than just a learning tool for up-and-coming engineers, but rather an opportunity to give real hands-on experience to the future of the industry.
“As a startup, we treat internships as an extended interview process, and hire interns with the intent to bring them into a full time position,” Dunn said, adding that Droste and Romano have been exceptional. “Since we have begun hosting an internship program, this summer has been by far the best yet!”