Essex County College hosts first NASA on Campus experience

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NEWARK, NJ — Working in pairs, a dozen Essex County College faculty members carefully examined their Lego models, simulating rovers on the surface of Mars. They listened intently as Laura Jackson, from Lego Education, instructed them on where to place the models on the table.

When everything was set, the light on the models glowed while they moved a few inches to where they would pick up objects on the surface.

The exercise was not all fun and games. This recent session on the Essex campus was training for the faculty, who will serve as mentors and judges in the next phase of the college’s participation in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program. ECC is one of only six community colleges nationwide participating in the program.

This past summer, students took part in a five-week online activity at ECC as a warmup to the next phase of the program.

Next up is the Oct. 15 to 19 ECC campus event in which 25 students will compete for building the future Lego Rover to Mars, said Nidhal Marashi, chemistry professor and project coordinator for ECC. She said 20 of the students are from ECC, while the remaining five are from Virginia and Texas. 

Marashi and physics professor Nadia Lvov, have been training with NASA since October 2018 to bring the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program to Essex County College.

Students will be broken into four teams with six to seven members, establishing fictional companies interested in Mars exploration. Each team is responsible for developing and testing a prototype rover, forming a company infrastructure, managing a budget, and developing a communications and outreach plan.

Marashi said the students will be working on their projects from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. each day, with a trip to the Intrepid Museum in New York. Students will also hear from guest speakers from NASA, Rutgers University and NJIT, and private industry. On Oct. 19, the five, four-member teams will test their rovers as they move their EV3 Lego models around the simulated surface of Mars, retrieving various objects and bringing them back to their home bases.

Participants in the recent faculty training worked with pre-assembled Lego models, said ECC Vice President of Academic Affairs Jeffrey Lee, who took part in the session. “The students will be building their models from scratch,” he said. 

“The training was professional development for our faculty,” Marashi said, adding that the training culminated with a certificate of completion on EV3 Lego training.

“NASA looks forward to making the NCAS experience accessible to a wider range of students who may have had limited ability to travel to a NASA center for a week-long event,” NCAS activity manager Alicia Baturoni-Cortez said. “This pilot activity will evaluate the potential for replicating the successful NCAS experience at community college campuses throughout the nation.”

Photos Courtesy of Wayne Yourstone