Editor’s note:This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series in which professors and/or staff members discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. Jennifer Lee is a professor in the English and Reading Department at the Rockville Campus.
By Jennifer S. Lee
In September of 2020—MC’s first full semester of remote learning—I responded to a call from Dr. David Kuijt, who was looking for faculty mentors for MC teams in the semester-long NASA MUREP Innovative New Designs for Space (MINDS) competition.
In NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) program, students work in small teams to develop, plan, research, and execute an idea supporting the Artemis Program, NASA’s mission to land American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the Moon by 2024. According to the NASA MINDS website, “the work undertaken by students has the potential to uncover unique ideas, accelerate innovation, and aid in technological breakthroughs.”
The program’s appeal for a multidisciplinary approach, to include potential student and faculty contributions from across fields including business, chemistry, biology, psychology, communications, and English, intrigued me. It offered a way to step into a new-to-me, STEM-based setting. In addition to the actual build of their ideas, all projects culminated in researching, writing, and defending a technical research paper presented to a panel of NASA engineers and astronauts. I supported my team in bringing to life, from brainstorm to final presentation, curiosity-prompted research and skillful writing. This project demonstrated the relevance and importance of writing in a professional setting.
MC teams were astoundingly successful in this competition. Their creativity, professionalism, enthusiasm, persistence, and excellence impressed us—and NASA.
Mentors did not serve as subject matter experts or decisionmakers. Rather, we encouraged and supported what was truly a student-centered and motivated effort. The teams pursued ideas of interest to them and developed their own research and project build plans. They coordinated collaboration and communication. We provided access to College resources when needed. We also offered guidance to develop final papers/posters and prepare presentations. There were late-night conversations on Discord, a VoIP, instant messaging and digital distribution platform. We emailed documents back and forth as the team worked to meet NASA deadlines. Witnessing and supporting such passionate engagement and dedication made this mentoring experience immensely gratifying.
MC teams were astoundingly successful in this competition. Their creativity, professionalism, enthusiasm, persistence, and excellence impressed us—and NASA. NASA selected two MC teams to participate in the competition final: Artemis Generation (Thermoelectric Greenhouse) and MC Green Thumbs (Underground Greenhouse). MC’s teams earned two of the seven underclassmen slots for the nationwide competition, which included teams from many four-year institutions.
The highlight of this experience for me occurred during my team’s final presentation. One of the students had an internet connectivity issue, dropping her from the meeting. Without missing a beat, her team members provided the overview. When the student reconnected, the team seamlessly passed the presentation back to her. The importance of that kind of collaboration, preparedness, and professionalism was not lost on me—or the NASA judges. During the awards ceremony, one of the engineers appeared on screen, unplanned, to express how the team’s ability to support each other impressed the judges. He underscored how important readiness and collaboration are to NASA astronauts and engineers.
During this program, our students enjoyed some unique experiences. Dr. Kuijt arranged a virtual meeting for student teams with a special guest, Dr. Led Klosky, professor of civil engineering at the United States Military Academy (West Point). Dr. Klosky’s doctoral work focused on issues associated with lunar construction and NASA funded his dissertation research. In the final project presentation, both MC teams presented their projects and engaged in a Q&A segment with NASA engineers and astronauts. At the awards ceremony, NASA astronaut Winston Scott regaled our teams with space journey stories.
NASA judges enthusiastically acknowledged the innovation and effort MC teams brought to this program. Among many honors, the MC Green Thumbs won first place for overall design, build, and demonstration in the underclassmen category. Once again, MC students displayed their boundless talent and creativity.
Dr. David Kuijt’s Cottontails Crew team worked on issues associated with underground greenhouses on the moon.
Professor Gary Thai’s team, Artemis Generation, worked on thermoelectric generator design.
Professor Jennifer Lee’s team, MC Green Thumbs, worked on issues associated with underground greenhouses on the moon.
NASA MINDS Awards
MC Green Thumbs, First place
Artemis Generation, Third place
Artemis Generation, First place
Overall Design, Build, and Demonstration:
MC Green Thumbs, First place
Artemis Generation, Honorable Mention
MC Green Thumbs, Underground Greenhouse (Prof. Jennifer Lee)
Artemis Generation, Thermoelectric Generator (Prof. Gary Thai)
Cottontails Crew, Dust Mitigation (Dr. David Kuijt)