Future Frontiers

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  • Published: August 28, 2016
There are very few people who can say they’ve seen the sun rise over the curvature of the Earth from space, but the man on-stage in the blue jumpsuit is one of them. As NASA astronaut Duane ‘Digger’ Carey addressed the crowd of more than 30 young Qatari students at Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ), a partner university of Qatar Foundation (QF), pupils shift closer to the edge of their seats.
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A space shuttle pilot on the STS-109 Columbia, in 2002 Carey spent 11 days in space as part of the fourth Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Today, he’s at TAMUQ to speak about the value of a career in engineering and inspire the young minds of the 2016 TAMUQ Future Engineers Space Camp.

The summer camp is part of TAMUQ’s wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Program and is directed towards Qatari students in Grades 10 and 11 as a means of exposure to the many sub-disciplines of engineering. Targeting youth who may one day be prospective TAMUQ students with an avid interest in scientific streams of study, the Future Engineers program runs parallel with the university’s Summer Engineering Academy, where National Vision scholars are hand-picked to participate alongside TAMUQ professors and engineering students on summer research projects.
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“Both programs are open to students from schools across the country and we’ve been really fortunate to have a wide variety and diversity amongst applicants,” said Jowaher Al Marri, Outreach and Development Manager, Development, Engagement and Outreach Office, TAMUQ. “We feel each member of our department has the responsibility of changing perceptions towards science. Our slogan is ‘Science Is Fun’; we tell participants that through science and engineering they can serve their country and do a lot of great things that Qatar.”

Inspiring intellect
Held with a different theme each year to engage students, the 2016 Future Engineers Camp looked to the galaxies for inspiration as pupils tackled a unique set of workshops and labs. Each were aimed at unlocking pupils’ ingenuity and putting their mathematical skills to the test as they engineered and created objects of daily use for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

“We planned to do two main activities for the students,” said postdoctoral researcher and STEM Program instructor Ziyad Shafiq, who leads the technical instruction of the Future Engineers Camp. “With the support of the Civil Aviation Authority’s Meteorology Department, we launched a weather balloon into orbit with a GoPro camera attached to take pictures of Qatar from that level of the atmosphere. We’re also hosting the NASA Future Engineers 3D Design Challenge, where students design and print a 3D model of an item that could assist with the operational challenges of a space mission using TAMUQ’s state-of-the-art 3D printing facilities.”
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Smart design
While constructing the weather balloon, students were tasked with designing a payload container made from foam and outfitted with a camera, measuring equipment, and an SMS/GPS location tracker. Used primarily for meteorological forecasting and observation, the balloon and its sensitive payload of instruments monitors and collects measurements on wind speed, temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. The balloon itself is made of flexible latex and pumped with hydrogen or helium to generate lift and can also be used as a device for photography/videography, research, and surveillance of pollution levels.

For participating student Mohammad Al Kharaz, the opportunity to be part of the Future Engineers Camp was a chance to broaden his horizons and explore the outer limits of his creativity. He said his biggest inspiration was NASA astronaut Duane ‘Digger’ Carey. “Hearing him speak, I found out about so many things I didn’t know about life in space – for example, not all of the astronauts go outside of the ship and walk in space,” stated Kharaz. “We’re also using 3D printing to design a storage tool that can be used in space, which is something I find quite entertaining – it’s fun.”

Carey was invited to TAMUQ as guest of honor for the Future Engineers Camp and took students to the frontiers of space and beyond, recounting his life experiences, how he stumbled upon his own technical education, and what it’s like to float among the planets. Afterwards, he joined the class back in the laboratory, offering invaluable mentorship advice and guiding students towards completion of their 3D design projects.
“I would say to any young person who’s interested in engineering or a technical field is to dive in and don’t be dissuaded by the difficulty of the math,” said Carey. “If you don’t understand the math the first time, try it again and again because you will understand it after you’ve given it enough effort. Learning the math is important, particularly if you want to go into a technical field.
“Even if later on in life you change your mind, those math classes are going to give you the ability to learn new subjects and skills a lot faster than you would otherwise. People tell us that math is one of those things that engages the learning area of the brain and turns us into learning machines – so it’s important no matter what you want to do in life.”
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Blueprints of leadership
The TAMUQ computer lab buzzes as students break off into groups and huddle around screens, working on the latest adjustments to their designs using AUTODESK 123D Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD) software. They’ll be presenting their final creations in front of their peers and a panel of judges from TAMUQ in two days’ time and all that’s left is a little bit of fine-tuning.

While honing their mathematical skills to engineer their designs to the exact print-size measurements, the NASA 3D Design Challenge allows students to further develop their presentation, communication and leadership skills in an environment of teamwork. Throughout the 10-day, hands-on camp, pupils learned about scientific foundations of data measurement and communication, and electromagnetic energy in space, while participating in project-based activities that highlight the fun nature of scientific inquiry.

Sharifa Al Mansoori is a high school student who aspires to study petroleum engineering at TAMUQ. She and her Design Challenge team have conceptualized a toolbox for astronauts to use in space. “It’s similar to a make-up box that can expand open,” she explained. “Both sides can hold tools and in the middle there’s a small device to store magnets. We need to help them devise a way to carry it in zero gravity, so it’s light, and can be put in their right- or left-side pockets. Simple, but creative.”

As a young learner, it’s the opportunity to carry out ideas like these that bring Al Mansoori ever closer to unlocking her full human potential. “If I have my experience and I study well, I can do anything I want", she smiled. Whatever you’re doing, don’t give up – no matter what’s going on in your life, don’t give up on your dreams. I want to be here, I want to study here, I want to graduate from this place.”

And what do you do when the sky is no longer the limit? You push beyond and reach for the stars. It’s a motto astronaut Carey has quite literally put into practice. With a Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering, Carey moved on from a career as a fighter-jet pilot with the US military, to a space shuttle pilot with NASA where he spent eight-and-a-half years helping to lead shuttle missions safely to orbit and back. What he hopes students will also take away from their experience at the Future Engineers Camp is the importance of teamwork.

“You’re part of a big team at NASA, and most of an astronaut’s time during his or her career is not spent in space,” he said. “It’s spent on Earth supporting other missions in various ways that are going to space. There’s a team environment that makes it all the more special when you do get your opportunity to fly in space – you have all your friends supporting you.”
The Future Engineers Camp and its counterpart, the Summer Engineering Academy, act as similar support structures where Qatar’s brightest young academic minds can explore and expand their interests in engineering and a technical education. Through these educational pathways and STEM disciplines, Qatari youth are poised to take up the challenges necessary to develop the nation’s technical workforce and expertise in line with the Qatar National Vision 2030.

“We want to find those students who have that interest to pursue the field of science as their profession,” Jowaher Al Marri expressed to The Foundation. “Here, they learn to look at science from a different perspective and to link information together. They might know something as theory from a textbook, but working in diverse teams coming from different schools gives them a new outlook. The one thing our participants this year have in common is they’re all high-achieving, dedicated students, and we can count on them for the future of our country.”

So, what’s the view like from outer space? For astronaut Carey it’s one of the rarest perspectives of all. “Being in a spacecraft in Earth’s orbit is unique. What’s true about the low Earth-orbit environment is the incredible view you get of our planet. You have no idea how beautiful it is until you can see it from space.”