Future scientists build rockets, do ‘engineering stuff’ at LSU Space Day

They’re loud, they joked with one another, cheered for a good rocket launch, and all the while the almost 200 middle school students at the LSU Space Day on Friday were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing — having fun with science.

Although their “rockets” were made of balloons, straws, paper and plastic pipe for now, some of these students could be future engineers who send people to Mars in 2030, participants at the event said.

Hosted by LSU College of Engineering, LSU College of Science, Lockheed Martin, NCAM, Jacobs Technology and NASA, LSU Space Day 2014 gave students a chance to compete in space-related challenges and learn more about the future of the space program and their potential role in it.

“When I was their age, we had a space shuttle program that was still flying,” said Patrick Scheuermann, center director for the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The work of previous engineers and others at NASA paved the way for him to spend the first 20 years of his career working on the shuttle program, and now his generation is paving the way for these middle school students to work on the next evolution.

Even though the space shuttle has been retired, Scheuermann said, NASA is working on the “largest rocket known to man” — the Space Launch System — which eventually will get people to Mars, he said. The target date for that mission would be in 2030, when Mars is the closest to Earth in its orbit, just about the time these middle school students will be ready to join in the work.

“This group will be the age that helps to get our people on the surface of Mars,” Scheuermann said.

Wanda Sigur, vice president and deputy general manager for civil space for Lockheed Martin Corporation, said that as 2030 gets closer, partners in space exploration are doing more science, technology, engineering and math events for students.

“This age is very, very critical. Between the age of 10 and 13 is where people opt in or out of science and math,” she said.

The ultimate goal of all of these programs is to get young students excited about science and math and have that excitement show up with large numbers of engineers and other science professionals who will be involved in that 2030 Mars program and beyond.

That’s the seed that organizers hoped to plant Friday as students not only competed in rocket launch and air engine accuracy but also got to see a small-scale model of NASA’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a chance to hear from a LSU College of Engineering alumnus Keith Comeaux, flight director of the Curiosity flight that landed on Mars.

Patience Moreno, computer enrichment teacher at St. Aloysius School, took a number of students, many of whom are involved in the robotics club she also leads. As a former chemical engineer, Moreno said she wants to get students involved in any science, technology or math activity.

“I think it makes them think critically,” she said. “It gets them to do hands-on activities, and they absolutely love it.”

Students from Scotlandville Middle Pre-Engineering Magnet Academy, Parkview Baptist, Glasgow Middle School, St. Aloysius School, Iberville Math, Science and Arts Academy, and Episcopal High School participated in the activities of the day.

For some students, whether they’re going to become engineers and astronauts wasn’t really at the front of their minds as they moved from activity to activity.

“It sounded like a lot of fun because you get to hang out with friends and see space stuff,” Anna Kassidy Halphen, 11, said. Her friend Chanler Aucoin, 11, agreed.

“It seemed like it would be a lot of fun to do all kind of engineering stuff,” she said, adding, “and NASA.”