Educator Features

At NASA, Math Counts
What would the world be like if there were no math?

Well, for one thing, NASA probably would not exist, for without math all you can do is talk about a problem.

NASA's success depends on scientists and engineers who are knowledgeable about mathematics. That's part of the reason that George Hamilton, a human-factors engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., volunteers his time to encourage students' interest in the subject.

Hamilton sits in a mock-up of the Ares I instrument unit

NASA engineer George Hamilton's job includes working with human factors concerns on the new Ares I launch vehicle. Image Credit: NASA

Hamilton said events like this competition provide incentive for students to further sharpen their mathematics skills. "Math contests are good," he said. "How good would the University of Alabama football team be if they never played anyone?"

Hamilton began working as a MATHCOUNTS volunteer after getting his Professional Engineer license and becoming a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, one of the organizations that helped establish the competition.

As a volunteer, Hamilton has been part of the leadership team for the MATHCOUNTS regional organization, based in Huntsville, and of the Alabama state organization. He has played a key role in both of those levels of competition.

Hamilton said he is very proud of the fact that, for a state of its size, students from Alabama have been very competitive at the national level, with strong teams and individuals coming from all over the state.

In fact, he said, one of his co-workers at NASA is a former Huntsville teacher who not only had students compete in the national event, but two of them even created guide books used in MATHCOUNTS and more advanced mathematics competitions.

Huntsville schools that participate in MATHCOUNTS represent a wide spectrum, Hamilton said, adding that there is probably similar variety in the participating schools nationwide. For example, he said, one Huntsville school is so involved in the program that it holds weekly MATHCOUNTS practices and integrates problems from the competition into the regular mathematics curriculum. Another school is an arts and drama magnet school, where one dedicated teacher keeps the program going. "But she comes every year, and sometimes makes it into the top four (that advance to the next level)."

Hamilton is a member of Marshall Space Flight Center's human engineering team, which is responsible for ensuring that spaceflight hardware is designed to be easy to use. Since the announcement of the new space exploration initiative, his team has played two roles.

It has an ongoing role in payloads for the International Space Station, making sure that experiments and equipment sent to the space station are "crew-friendly."

The team has also started working on the new Ares I launch vehicle that will carry crews into space after the shuttle is retired in 2010. Hamilton and his team work with Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana on human factors related to the assembly and maintenance of the rocket.

Looking even further into the future, Hamilton recently participated in a study of the issues involved in establishing an outpost on the moon. "There are a lot of challenges, like how do you get the abrasive and allergenic lunar dust off the suits," he said.

Hamilton is a second-generation NASA engineer; his father worked at Marshall on designing the systems used to transport Saturn rocket hardware from the sites around the country where it was assembled to the launch site in Florida.

Just as NASA runs in his family, so does MATHCOUNTS. "I've had my spouse, children and parents helping out on the day of the contest," he said. "So you might say it's a family affair."

Hamilton said his participation as a MATHCOUNTS volunteer has been very rewarding. "I do it as, call it an outreach and a mission, and because it's fun," he said. "You get to see these bright faces."

"Students have a big decision to make in fifth or sixth grade that will likely foretell which direction their careers will take them," Hamilton said. "That decision is how much math to take. This decision is important, as math is the foundation of everything technical."

NASA continues its tradition of investing in the nation’s education. That tradition is directly tied to the agency's major education goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines. To compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, NASA is focused on engaging and retaining students in education efforts that encourage their pursuit of disciplines critical to NASA's future engineering, scientific and technical missions.

Related Resources
NASA's Constellation Program
NASA Education Web Site  →
NASA Marshall Space Flight Center  →
Marshall Space Flight Center Education  →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services