The Connecticut Space Grant is a NASA-funded initiative that has promoted and improved STEM education in Connecticut since 1991. The Space Grant Consortium allocates grants to Connecticut undergraduate and graduate students to help with research projects, internships, and more. The consortium also puts on events designed to get students involved in hands-on STEM projects.
NASA has established a space grant program in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico in order to help promote space research related projects and careers nationwide. STEM fields are facing a massive shortfall in qualified personnel over the next ten years. Dr. Elizabeth Cowles, a professor of biology, is the Consortium’s Academic Advisory Board Member from Eastern Connecticut State University. She stresses how important it is to reach students early. “To me, it’s important to get students involved at the very beginning. We’re finding that if students have a vested interest in the work and can do their own research or independent studies, they are more likely to stay with STEM,” she said.
Although the grants are designed to support space-related projects, that category is much broader than many realize. “As long as it has practical applications, it can be used in almost any related field where it is appropriate,” said Dr. Cowles. One student at ECSU who received a grant did a project on controlling microbial growth. “Everyone asks me, ‘how can that relate?’ Well, controlling microbial growth is a massive problem on the International Space Station. If a student can think of ways to curb growth, [NASA] would be very interested in that, and it would have applications here on Earth too,” said Dr. Cowles.
(Actual KMAX UAV Helicopter, NASA-Funded Scale KMAX Research UAV Helicopter)
Dr. Al Gates, a professor of engineering at CCSU, works with unmanned aircraft technology—another field that has great but overlooked connections to NASA’s core mission. “We are at the tip of the iceberg with unmanned aircraft systems technology. If you were to compare it with cell phones, we are at the big clunky car phone stage,” he said. Students at CCSU have been building a scale K-Max helicopter, which is commonly used in unmanned helicopter missions. Gates acted as a guide for the helicopter’s design, but students did the analysis and testing themselves. Dr. Gates believes students will benefit tremendously from this experience. “There are going to be a lot of employment opportunities in this field and CCSU students are getting hands-on exposure to the latest technology,” he said.
CCSU students never would have had access to this technology were it not for seed money that came from a NASA grant. “NASA was nice enough to fund us and [CCSU] has a lot of visibility with drone technology and that’s all because of them. Now we receive funding from the Army, Air Force, and Northeast Utilities, but if it wasn’t for NASA, we wouldn’t have these capabilities,” he said. Students at CCSU can apply for a helicopter workshop grant, which is a weeklong intensive program that provides hands-on learning about helicopters and multicopter unmanned aircraft.
Dr. Cowles encourages students to apply, as it is a great chance to work on a project they are passionate about. “The major reason I do [this work] is to give students another opportunity to further their education outside of the classroom or the lab here on campus,” she said.