Preparing Students for Launch
Rudy Gostowski has seen how just a little bit of time can impact a student.

Rudy Gostowski looks on as students prepare a part of their rocket

The Fisk Altitude Achievement Missile Team has competed in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative for two years. Image Credit: NASA

A NASA chemist by profession, Gostowski has worked with students for many years as a college professor and mentor.

Most recently he has worked with students at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Gostowski was selected in 2005 to teach and conduct research at Fisk as a NASA Administrator's Fellow.

"The students are the future, and by just putting (in) a little bit of effort, from the students you can see remarkable results," Gostowski said.

The NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project is a professional development opportunity for NASA employees to teach and conduct research at minority institutions. NAFP also offers professional development opportunities to faculty who teach in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at minority institutions. The project supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

At Fisk, Gostowski has developed a hands-on chemistry lab and helped to create and mentor a student rocket team. One of the nation's oldest historically black universities, Gostowski described Fisk as "an asset to Nashville, to Middle Tennessee and to the nation."

"I think they have a good chance at having an aerospace program of some sort, whether it be a collaborative program with another institution or the university has an independent program," he said.

In his first year at Fisk, Gostowski set up a Discovery Lab for general chemistry classes. Students are given a problem to solve and must come up with the solution on their own. They are not given a recipe to follow as in traditional chemistry labs.

Examples of problems are to sort a mixture of sand, metal filings, salt, rock salt and other dry ingredients, or to determine the effects of cooking on the vitamin C content of vegetables. Students must find a solution, write a proposal, execute the proposal and then write a final report showing their findings.

"When it's done, they've learned technical writing; they've learned some program management; and they've learned how to use the scientific method," Gostowski said.

Students and mentors working on the tail fin section of a rocket

Rudy Gostowski helps ready the Fisk University rocket at the 2008 University Student Launch Initiative. Image Credit: NASA

In his second year at Fisk, Gostowski partnered with Kent Wallace, director of Fisk's physics labs, and put together the Fisk Altitude Achievement Missile Team. The team has participated two years in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative, sponsored by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The annual competition challenges students to design, build and fly a reusable rocket with a scientific payload to an altitude of one mile.

The rocket team also does outreach projects to engage young students in rocketry. In 2007, Fisk students held rocket demonstrations for more than 1,000 students from three Nashville-area middle schools. The students also built and launched their own egg-carrying rockets.

His time as a NASA Administrator's Fellow ended in 2007, and he resumed his work at the Marshall Space Flight Center, researching propulsion in support of the space shuttle, International Space Station and Constellation programs. The Constellation program is designing a new series of space vehicles to take humans to the moon and beyond. Gostowski, however, remains at Fisk as a visiting professor and as a sponsor of the rocket team.

Gostowski said he is proud to see the Fisk rocket team continue to grow and to see students involved with NASA. Two rocket team members have since held internships at Marshall and at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

One of his most affirming moments was when a Fisk student from Nigeria saw the student-built rocket launch for the first time and described it as "beautiful."

"That's worth it," Gostowski said, "to see her really inspired by this whole thing."

In addition to mentoring students at Fisk, the Illinois native hosts two or three student research assistants each summer through NASA's Graduate Student Researchers Project and Undergraduate Student Research Project. The projects bring college students to NASA centers to conduct research with scientists and engineers.

Gostowski has also sponsored students through NASA Academy, a training and research opportunity for college students interested in careers related to aerospace.

"I firmly believe that we need to have these students here and that they can make a real contribution while learning," Gostowski said.

Related Resources
NASA Administrator's Fellowship Project
Marshall Space Flight Center
University Student Launch Initiative
Graduate Student Researchers Project
Undergraduate Student Research Project
NASA Academy
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services