Spaceport America Cup

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.

A picture of Spaceport America, located in New Mexico.
Photo credit: Miami2you / Shutterstock

The 2017 Spaceport America Cup is the first of its name, picking up the grail after the end of ESRA’s International Rocket Engineering Competition. But its sponsor and namesake, the New Mexico launch site for private space companies, hope to see it grow a reputation of its own for nurturing a new generation of aeronautical innovators.

The competitors in this competition are all students from colleges across the country, 110 teams in all. The winners overall were a team from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their rocket, which used a liquid rocket propulsion system, traveled over 9km above the Earth’s surface.

Another rocket, built by a team of student interns at United Launch Alliance, fired off the largest sport rocket on record, 16m tall and over 1,000 pounds. This one served another purpose: carrying 16 packets of mementos and cards from students K-12, it was meant to inspire those students into STEM paths of their own.

The turnout this year was a massive increase over the attendance at the last ESRA event, which garnered 40 teams in 2016, and had outgrown its venue. The much larger facilities of Spaceport America will allow the new competition to continue growing, giving more and more engineering students the impetus to look to the stars.

Participants in the ESRA competition have gone on to employment in Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA, and NASA, proving that the competition moves lives forward. It’s certain that technology made by some of these past students is in space today, either on the ISS or in orbit in some other way.

21 different awards went out for various achievements in all kinds of flight and design, backed by many of those same companies and also Virgin Galactic, which owns a controlling interest in Spaceport America. It was held over the weekend of June 24th, 2017.

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81-Year-Old Man Working Towards Earning His High School Diploma

A photo of a high school diploma with a graduation cap laying on top of it.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Abdel-Qader Abu Ajameyah is 81-years-old, a Palestinian retiree with fourteen children and thirty-six grandchildren. At an age when most men begin to rest on their laurels, he is hard at work—at a school desk.

For five hours a day, Abu Ajameyah works towards earning his high school diploma, wearing a suit and tie to his studies every day.

In 1948, he was a student in a village near Ramla, which was at that time in Palestine. When the Arab-Israeli war broke out with the creation of Israel in that year, his family fled to become refugees in the West Bank, and  Abu Ajameyah soon went to work to help his family. For the next fifty years, he sold food and made a good life for his kin.

Today, with grandchildren reaching adulthood and great-grandchildren on the way, he says his goal is to be “on par” with those descendants.

“I want to set an example to generations—never stop learning,” says Abu Ajameyah.

A room has been set aside for him in a local schoolhouse, and an aid helps him by taking dictation, since a recent stroke has made writing difficult for the octogenarian. He took Israel’s national test for the first time last year, but failed to pass. He’s determined this year. There’s a family party on the line. The next exam will be in July.

He has hearty family support. His sons and wife are all working to make sure he can devote himself to his studies.

“We all encourage him and we are all very proud of him,” said Zakaria, one of Abu Ajameyah’s sons.

Abu Ajameyah also has community support—it’s a matter of pride. The illiteracy rate among Palestinian adults is less than 4%, one of the lowest rates in any Arab nation. Stats for Palestinians living in Israeli territory are less clear-cut.

Grad Student Partners With Pixar to Tell Science Stories

A photo of a sign that reads, "Pixar Animation Studios."

Photo credit: Jacob Davies at Flickr Creative Commons.

“So what are you doing at work?”

For a lot of people in STEM fields, that’s not an easy question to answer. That seems insignificant, but it creates distance between people in science and the rest of us—a distance that lowers the ambient scientific awareness of the population at large.

Sara ElShafie, a grad student at UC Berkeley, knew that trouble. Trying to explain her studies in integrative biology to her family was always difficult, and she recognized that she wasn’t able to express the importance she found in her work. Since her goal in life is to become the director of a major science museum, she yearned to be able to communicate better.

That’s what led her, in 2015, to contact the outreach department of Pixar Animation Studios and ask if they could work with her to teach students how to adapt film-making ideas for science communicators.

“I just thought, ‘Why not?’” said ElShafie in an interview with Berkeley News. “Communication skills require training, just like any other skills. Good communication requires good storytelling. Maybe we can learn from professional storytellers.”

Her efforts snared her two volunteers from the studio, and together, they worked up a pilot seminar, and began presenting workshops in March of 2016. Participants in the workshops follow a template that illustrates the links between film-making and science, and emerge with a story outlined about their own research.

Since the first informal workshop, the audience has grown to nearly 200 people per seminar. ElShafie hopes to continue holding it yearly at Berkeley, and has presented it by invitation at UC Santa Barbara and the Western Society of Naturalists.

“It has never been more critical for scientists to be able to explain science to the public effectively, and the backbone of all communication is a story,” said ElShafie, adding that humanizing the tellers of these stories can combat misconceptions about the “agenda” of scientists.

California Introduces Later Start Times for All Public High Schools

An clock that reads 8:30.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

For generations now, school for adolescents has begun between 7–8 a.m., early enough that the buses can finish with the older students before coming back for the younger ones. But science today is telling us that we’ve got it backwards.

Teenagers need between nine and 10 hours of sleep a night, but their bodies aren’t wired to feel tired until late in the evening, even when they make an effort to get enough sleep. This leads to chronic sleep loss in teenagers who can’t sleep until after 11 p.m. but have to be in class eight hours later, which puts them at risk of all kinds of disorders and injuries.

Several states and school districts have listened to the research, adopting later start times for junior high and high school, and soon, California will join them.

On Tuesday, May 30th, a bill was approved in the California state senate to impose an 8:30 a.m. start time on all public high schools. The bill won’t go into effect until the 2020 school year, and will allow rural school districts to waive it if the schedule changes are too inconvenient. But for most of California’s 1.8 million high school students, a more rested education is on the way.

Opponents of the bill had mostly economic concerns–the cost and inconvenience of rescheduling, of dealing with the various unions that serve public education. Some had more petty concerns, dismissing teenager’s needs as just “staying up too late” and assuming their future careers would need them trained to wake at dawn. But proponents had science on their side, including studies into student results by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association. Another study by the University of Minnesota showed a reduction in teenage auto accidents with later start times.

As more and more states adopt these later start times, they each have seen improved test scores, behavioral outcomes, and higher graduation rates. Hopefully, when California’s numbers begin to join those statistics, we’ll reach a national tipping point and make these new hours standard.