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Students Have to See It to Be It
Notes on moonbuggy written with blue marker on a white board

Students formed teams and worked on brainstorming ideas. Image Credit: Pamela Greyer

What do you do when you have a big engineering design challenge, a small budget, students who know little about engineering or the design process, and no mentor? You move forward one step at a time, teaching the students as much as you can with each step you take.

This was the challenge faced by inner-city Chicago teacher Pamela Greyer as she put together a high school team to participate in the 19th annual NASA Great Moonbuggy Race set for April 13-14, 2012, in Huntsville, Ala.

Students who participate in the Great Moonbuggy Race often come from schools where engineers from the community volunteer their time to help with designing and building the buggy. The teams typically have support in areas like machining and welding, as well as assistance in raising money to travel to the race. But Greyer's students come from the true inner city of Chicago. Many of the students do not have a home environment in which they are supported academically or financially. Some of her students are routinely exposed to the harsh conditions typically associated with inner-city living. The life most people see only in headlines or on the evening news is what her students live day in and day out.

What Is the NASA Great Moonbuggy Race?

Students must design, build and test a sturdy, collapsible, lightweight vehicle. The moonbuggy must address engineering problems similar to those overcome in the late 1960s by the original Apollo-era lunar rover development team at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

These buggies are based on the design of those classic rovers, which U.S. astronauts drove across the moon's surface during the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions in the early 1970s.

Each moonbuggy is human-powered and carries two students, one female and one male. The vehicle travels over a half-mile of simulated lunar terrain course, including craters, rocks, lava ridges, inclines and lunar soil.

Learn more about the 2012 NASA Great Moonbuggy Race.

This sometimes harsh environment motivates Greyer's goals as an educator. Because of their home lives, she is determined to give her students as much exposure to STEM opportunities as possible, despite the obstacles she frequently faces. To do this, Greyer takes advantage of many NASA educational resources. She is one of NASA’s Solar System Ambassadors, which is a public outreach project that uses motivated volunteers across the country to do outreach events in their area. As such, Greyer is familiar with many of the opportunities available from NASA. Along with being a Solar System Ambassador, Greyer has been a coach and mentor for students participating in the FIRST Robotics competition. She heard about the Great Moonbuggy Race a few years ago but waited until this year to form a team. Greyer wanted to expand her STEM after-school offerings and thought the moonbuggy project would be a great way to do that.

Her students did not know much about NASA's Apollo missions, let alone what a moonbuggy was or how it got to the moon. So first, Greyer had to teach them a little history. She had her students research the lunar missions and the moon landing by projecting an image of the moon to show the sites where NASA had considered landing the lunar modules. The students learned how innovation and the engineering design process helped NASA solve the many challenges faced with 1960s technology. To learn everything they needed to know to build and race their moonbuggy, the students came to after-school sessions twice a week and every Saturday. With a high level of commitment and determination, the Incredible Spyders team was born.

The process hasn't always been easy for the team. Many of the students had never participated in an activity like this. Although all of them love to build things and have been fast learners, some struggle with the tasks that are beyond their skill level. But while things haven't always been easy, Greyer writes of the experience, "They are having such a great time because most of the students on the moonbuggy team have never had an opportunity to be involved in a project like this in their lives. One student, who is an avid skateboarder and builds bikes, took one look at some of the moonbuggy pictures online and immediately began talking about designs and materials. There is structure to a team, and when the students have been given a task to do or a role to fill, they feel empowered. ... They feel what they are accomplishing is so special."

Four students sit in front of a computer

Students did a lot of research to learn about Apollo lunar missions and what a moonbuggy is. Image Credit: Pamela Greyer

Greyer loves to see the students' determination to keep working on a task until they find a solution. She has watched the students form "sub-teams," where they fit themselves into the group that best fits their interests and talents. She writes of a student, "One of the young ladies on the team spent a few days learning how to break a bicycle chain and put it on with master links. Her hands got greasy; she had several slips with the screwdriver and broke a few nails. When she finally got the chains on, she was smiling from ear to ear, proud of her accomplishment." Greyer notices that when her students are working on the moonbuggy, they tend to smile a lot. They’re genuinely excited and interested in the project, which is not easy to accomplish with teens.

Greyer thinks that it's important for students in urban areas to be exposed to hands-on projects and competitions so they can learn about the opportunities open to them in STEM careers. She believes that students "have to see if they want to be," and so she does everything she can to bring STEM professionals and experiences into her students' lives. Greyer hopes that her students will increase their mathematics skills and will improve their ability to think and be creative. She writes, "I hope that they can learn how to innovate out of necessity and problem solve based on a set of guidelines to arrive at a solution. ... I also want them to realize that, when something seems impossible, the only limitations on making it possible are those that exist in our minds."

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will be hosting the Incredible Spyders and roughly 99 other teams from around the world April 13-14, 2012. Check the NASA website to keep updated on this exciting competition for high school and university students.

Related Resources:
› NASA Great Moonbuggy Race   →
› Solar System Ambassador Profile of Pamela Greyer
› Gearing Up for NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race 2012
› The 2012 FIRST Robotics Competition
› NASA Apollo Missions

Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services