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NASA and New York state government to fund innovative engineering program to involve students in design of next-generation spacecraft
NASA and the State of New York will jointly fund a three-year program at Syracuse and Cornell universities to develop a virtual learning environment that uses advanced information technologies to improve student learning, on-the-job training, and the ability of engineers at geographically disperse locations to collaborate on complex, multidisciplinary projects.
As one component of the engineering course, students at the two universities will collaborate with NASA engineers on the design of future reusable space vehicles that could replace the space shuttle. NASA and New York state officials hope the program will lead to advances in both undergraduate engineering education, as well as engineering collaborations necessary for supporting future space agency missions.
“When NASA was looking for a place that would help them further America’s space program and design what may be some of the most significant innovations of the 21st century, they chose New York,” says New York Governor George E. Pataki. “They chose New York because we have the most to offer–the best world-class research labs and academic centers, the most highly skilled workforce, and a state that is second to none in its commitment to fostering high-tech business growth and development.”
NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin, Gov. Pataki and U.S. Rep. James Walsh (R-Onondaga) visited Syracuse University March 12 to present seed funding for implementation of the program, called the Advanced Interactive Discovery Environment (AIDE) for Engineering Education project. At a news conference, Goldin announced a three-year, $2.5 million NASA commitment to fund the AIDE project, and Pataki announced $500,000 in state matching funds. As chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies, Walsh has spending oversight responsibility for NASA.
Also attending the press conference were Syracuse University Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw and Dean Edward A. Bogucz of SU’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science. Cornell President Hunter Rawlings took part in the event from Cornell via a teleconference link.
The $3 million project is a research venture of Syracuse University in partnership with Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., and WebWisdom.com, a Syracuse-based provider of Web-based products for real-time, person-to-person communications over the Internet. The project is among the first three education and training efforts to emerge from an advanced engineering environment technology program led by the NASA Langley research center, which seeks to establish virtual design as the normal work environment among scientists and engineers, with the goal of rapidly creating innovative, affordable products. Similar courses are being developed at universities in Florida and Virginia.
“The three-year, $3 million AIDE project will create a new engineering curriculum for the country and for NASA,” Walsh says. “Syracuse, Cornell, and SUNY engineering students will be exposed to advanced, practical research applications at the undergraduate and graduate levels, collaborating with other students and NASA scientists across the country.”
Barry Davidson, Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Manufacturing Engineering in SU’s L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science, is the principal investigator on the project and coordinated the writing of the proposal for the NASA funding. The co-principal investigators are Elizabeth Liddy, a professor in SU’s School of Information Studies, and Anthony Ingraffea, a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell.
Davidson, Ingraffea, Alan Zehnder, Cornell associate professor of theoretical and applied mechanics, and other participating faculty at Cornell and SU are developing a two-semester, senior-level engineering design course to be delivered simultaneously to mechanical, aerospace and civil engineering students at each institution, linked by a variety of distance-learning tools, including videoconferencing and the Internet. The course will focus on the design of the next-generation space shuttle, or what NASA calls a reusable launch vehicle (RLV). Next-generation RLV concepts also are being studied by the space agency and are expected to be significantly less costly to manufacture and operate than the present space shuttle, yet have dramatically improved versatility. The seriousness with which NASA is prepared to consider the students’ design is indicated by the fact that NASA engineers will be participating throughout the course.
“This is an exciting opportunity for Syracuse University and Cornell University, in partnership with NASA and the State of New York, to take an important step in engineering education,” says SU Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw. “Our faculty and students will pioneer the development of a revolutionary environment for learning, which promises to prepare a new generation of engineers who will set the course for advances in space technology that are unimaginable to us now. We are very grateful to Congressman Walsh and Governor Pataki for their support in making the AIDE project, and these students’ ideas, a reality.”
The goal of the project, says Davidson, is to develop a system that can be used for expert-led or self-paced instruction, online collaborations, engineering simulations, and searches of existing knowledge from textual, electronic and human sources. “This course will make use of a variety of advanced learning tools,” he says. “Using the RLV as a focal point, we will teach fundamental engineering concepts as well as the way these are applied to a complex, multidisciplinary problem.”
“This will be a team-based design course with an outcome that will be a virtual design of an RLV instead of a tangible piece of hardware,” says Ingraffea, who added that the project springs from NASA’s desire to “go back and change the culture of engineering education so that graduating engineers think of collaborative distance design as a natural way of doing work.” The space agency must work this way because its laboratories are scattered across the country, he says.
Elizabeth Liddy, director of the Center for Natural Language Processing at SU, will lead the natural language processing (NLP) portion of the project. NLP is a technology that enables computers to achieve human-like understanding of language and will enable students to ask questions and quickly get answers while they are in the midst of their hands-on collaborations. A central theme in the course will be human interaction with computers, a specialist field led by Geri Gay, associate professor of communications at Cornell.
“The notion of AIDE is that learning is problem-solving based, and most problems aren’t unique,” Liddy says. “There are solutions from people who have preceded them, and the transcripts of the prior students’ collaboration will have been processed by the NLP technology, so the students will now have an easier time searching for information.”
Rather than just searching for key words in response to a user’s request, in natural language processing the computer understands the meaning behind both the text being searched and the user’s question, which results in more accurate and effective searches. The computer extracts the information from the prior efforts, plus textbooks and journal articles, organizes it, and presents it to the user in a simple, concise format.
“In the AIDE project there will be a need for accessible knowledge in the collaborative learning process,” Liddy says. “We’ll provide that access.”
Also central to the course will be the use of virtual reality, in which students can visualize and test their designs, and high-performance computing. In conjunction with the project, the Cornell Theory Center will develop a Windows-based virtual reality environment, known as a CAVE, and will dedicate a high-performance computational cluster to the course. A goal is to examine whether virtual reality-based simulations can improve learning and increase engineers’ understanding of new systems.
“AIDE will break down the traditional walls between departments,” says Cornell’s President Rawlings. “It will eliminate the constraints of physical distance; intergrate high-performance computing and virtual reality technologies into the curriculum; and it will provide “just in time” education, in that each professor’s module will appear in the course exactly when that expertise is needed.”
Davidson sees the AIDE project as a boon to student learning.
“AIDE will provide an opportunity for students to work on a project of national significance,” says Davidson. “At the same time, they will be helping us to develop a training system that can be used by practicing engineers, as well as by students at other universities.”