NASA astronaut leads innovative boot camp at Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The day before NASA announced its Asteroid Grand Challenge, 14 educators from high schools and middle schools assembled at Penn State's University Park campus to help solve the challenge of capturing, retrieving and utilizing an asteroid. NASA's goal is to ultimately locate, redirect and explore an asteroid, as well as find and plan for asteroid threats.

This multistate group of university, high school and middle school educators was part of the Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design (ICED) 2013 Innovation Boot Camp and was gathered to learn how to create a specialized multidisciplinary curriculum aimed at teaching students to tackle a real-world challenge creatively.

This year's project, Asteroid Capture, Retrieval and Utilization (ACRU), is not only in line with a NASA announcement on June 18, but may well prove to be as epic as past challenges such as Sustaining Humans on Mars (2012) and Digging and Drilling on the Surface of the Moon (2009). The program started at Penn State in 2008 with 30 NASA engineers taking the ICED curriculum.

ICED is championed by former astronaut Charles Camarda, NASA senior adviser for innovation, to encourage creative problem-solving and innovative thinking among students.

"Everyone is creative but maybe they are not exercising that part of their brain," Camarda said. "Bringing these epic challenges to university- and high school-level students sometimes produces ideas that otherwise wouldn't have been considered."

Camarda employs a methodology that encourages students to attack problems as a team, fosters failure as a step towards success and explores problem solving from a beginner's mind.

The fundamentals of the ICED methodology include:

-- Use your brain first: Think about the problem thoroughly before heading to the computer or proposing a solution;

-- Arrogance is the enemy of creativity: Sometimes being a know-it-all will impede forward progress so you need to let go of your ego and consider all possible solutions;

-- Failure is a requirement: You learn by testing boundaries and failing;

-- Pan out: Look at the big picture first, then zoom in on the details of the challenge;

-- Let your ideas incubate: Don't jump on the first "good" idea, think about it critically before acting on it; and

-- Everyone is creative.

Camarda said the program is designed to inspire students and show them that their ideas matter. Younger minds can lead to more creative problem solving because these students haven't yet been told what is and isn't possible.

But the program isn't just encouraging students -- it's a learning experience for teachers as well.

"ICED is intellectually stimulating for teachers because they are part of the problem solving process. We don't know all the answers so we are learning, too," said Dennis Montone, district supervisor of math and science at Bergen County (New Jersey) Technical Schools, which is in its second year with ICED and looks to expand the program this year.

Montone said that ICED helps teachers and students see the engineering way of approaching a project and provides access to experts and technology that otherwise would be unavailable to them.

"This boot camp is not just a data dump," said Sven Bilén, head of the School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs at Penn State's College of Engineering. "Educators get in-depth guidance on building curricula, using advanced technology and fostering the ICED methodology."

"These educators not only have to learn how to bring together multidisciplinary areas but also apply the knowledge in a way that helps students learn in a way that is meaningful for their personalities," Camarda said.

Camarda explains that by deconstructing traditional classwork and instead focusing on the application of the concepts teachers can get away from the concept of there only being one correct answer to any complex problem and therefore encourage students to actively participate in learning.

"We find that project-based learning fosters engagement, involvement and interest. Students don't realize how much they are learning," said Eric Paul, a physics teacher at Bergen County Technical Schools.

"I love to see kids blossom and grow," Paul said. "You have no idea where it will lead."

The ICED 2013 Innovation Boot Camp ran through June 21. Educators will work with students through the academic year on the ACRU challenge, culminating with presentations of their solutions at the end of the spring semester.

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Last Updated June 28, 2013