Inspiration may take awhile

NASA says to persist in telling youth about the personal, professional, and global benefits of engineering. Think Again: Message synchronization with the intended targets may have unexpected latency.


Leland D. Melvin (right), associate administrator for education, NASA, after his presentation at NIWeek 2013, visited with Dr. James Truchard, NI co-founder and STEM proponent. Courtesy: CFE Media, Mark T. HoskeWhat inspires today’s youth? Is it team robotics, commercialization of space, or contests to get an experiment into space? Sometimes it takes awhile for even the best messages about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to sink in, according to Leland D. Melvin, associate administrator for education, NASA. After his presentation at NIWeek 2013, Melvin told CFE Media that at NASA, he gave presentations to youth before flew in the Space Shuttle program. Although he presented with enthusiasm to young people, some students were a tough sell.

In one classroom in particular, Melvin said he was certain his message wasn’t getting across. Half the kids were late, half fell asleep during his presentation, and some even heckled him that because he hadn’t been to space yet, he wasn’t even a real astronaut. One young woman, among those who slept through part of that long-ago presentation, approached Melvin five years ago.

Melvin said the young woman recalled waking up and seeing slides about the first African American in space, Guion Bluford, which provided her inspiration. “Now that woman is in medical school. You never know what impact you’re making. She might be saving someone’s life right now, and my message made a difference, even though I didn’t think so at the time. Engineers need to reach out with compassion and help kids understand how they can make the world a better place,” Melvin said.

Students today will be the next generation of space explorers. Some may live on the moon, walk on Mars, and build new robots that will land on other planets or perform semi-autonomous life-saving microscopic surgery inside of us. Our inspiration may have been Apollo moon walks, space walks, the Space Shuttle, or rebuilding a 1966 Ford. For Melvin, inspiration came from seeing myriad stars in the night sky during camping trips in the wilderness, a skateboard he built because his dad refused to buy him one, and a chemistry set that burned a hole in the living room carpet (which he deemed a success at the time, though his mom wouldn’t recommend it).

Additional claims to fame for Melvin include getting a college scholarship, playing in the NFL, getting into NASA astronaut corps, flying on two shuttle missions, operating two robotic arms in space, almost choking in space while slurping up peanut M&M’s in perfectly spherical water blobs (also not recommended, he said), pushing teachers to become more exciting and effective educators, and encouraging engineers to volunteer to help with STEM educational programs.

Next generation challenge

Melvin encouraged youth to chart their journeys into engineering with the Mars Exploration Design Challenge. Radiation shields are needed for the Orion rocket, designed to take humans to Mars. Cosmic radiation has different effects on cells than solar radiation does. The winning experiments will be flown on the International Space Station (ISS). If you just think only winners get recognition, think again. Anyone who tries will get their name flown into space. There’s a March 2014 deadline. See more about the Exploration Design Challenge below.

If you’re not already, encourage engineering youth. Even if your work doesn’t save the world, someone you inspire may.

- Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

ONLINE extra

NASA Exploration Design Challenge 

National Instruments education initiatives 

Grand Challenges for Engineering – How National Instruments is helping

National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering

Engineering interaction: What inspired or inspires you about engineering? How are you inspiring youth to consider engineering or other STEM careers? Add your comment below. (Comments are reviewed, so may not appear immediately.)

Mark , IL, United States, 10/01/13 11:56 AM:

As a youth, I was inspired by plant tours at Goodyear and Kellogg, visits to Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and helping Dad build and repair things. I think Tinker Toys and slot cars helped, too.
POOBIE , Non-US/Not Applicable, South Africa, 10/02/13 03:27 AM:

I read this article to my 3rd semester electrical engineering students so as to inspire them and emphasise the importance of having dreams and striving towards living them.
Elena , IL, United States, 10/04/13 10:55 AM:

Great article, Mark! Mr. Melvin sounds like an amazing man, and it's heartwarming to know that inspiration is happening when we least expect it. I especially appreciate your last line: "Even if your work doesn’t save the world, someone you inspire may." I am sure you have unexpectedly inspired many among your readers. Keep up the great work.
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