Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Experience: Jill Hettinger

I am a doctoral student in Education, Curriculum, and Instruction, with a focus on STEM leadership. I became a graduate student advisor for the MicroGravity Team in the fall of 2013. My main role was to advise the students on their outreach experiences. My role in advising the team in their outreach gained me a position as part of the ground crew while in Houston, and I was grateful for the invitation. I had no ambitions of flying in MicroG, because quite honestly the thought of flying in parabolas was less than appealing!  As the year progressed my role as the educational outreach advisor morphed into an integral advisor for the entire experience when the team began running into difficulties with their “brain” and “cranium”. The more I worked with this team in Boise, the more I became determined that I wanted to see them achieve their goal of flying their experiment in Houston. As these students were pushed they became more and more determined and persistent that “failure was not an option”, they were going to do whatever they had to do to reach the finish line. The team met challenges left and right as they got closer and closer to the approaching deadline, they went through plan A and plan B for their permanent brain material, plan A and plan B for their temporary brain material, and through plan A, B, C, and D for material to seal the 3D printed cranium. They even had begun working on a plan B for the entire cranium structure. 

These STEM students’ leadership skills and problem solving skills grew tremendously through the process, they will be entering their career fields with a significant amount of experience that any employer would be impressed with. I have been grateful to be not only a witness to this growth, but also to have been an integral part in pushing and supporting them towards this growth. The Microgravity University experience became bigger than doing research in MicroG for all of us.  

The surprise for me was an invitation by the NASA staff to fly with the undergraduate students. Despite my previous reluctance in flying in MicroG, I accepted the position. After going through the entire experience with the students, I now wanted to finish with them. I got to fly with Scott and Janos, and Boise State Alumni and NASA engineer - Malory Yates. 

The 32 parabolas went by quickly, and unlike I originally imaged, you have no concept of the planes trajectory as you are flying – so the flight is not scary at all! My body responded pretty quickly to each change. My legs moved toward the ceiling as soon as we hit MicroG each time, and then my entire body moved toward the floor pretty quickly when we switched to HyperG each time. I began to control my body’s movements in MicroG by pushing myself against the wall as I entered MicroG – this allowed my body to slide up the wall, and my legs didn’t float to the ceiling! I then was able to move toward the research apparatus in a more controlled manner. 

Each of the pressure sensors in the mock cranium responded to the changes in gravity and we saw changes in flow of the “cerebral spinal fluid”. The responses to the changes became so predictable that we were able to change our focus at the end of the flight toward our outreach materials. I held the Mini Microgravity Outreach Tube while Scott filmed the effects of MicorG on the “rover” capsule inside the tube for Mountain View Elementary School.  I accomplished an unexpected summersault in the air, from the force I used to replace the pin back into the tube! The experience was memorable, and I was glad to have share in the teams experience in MicroG.

The entire Microgravity University experience was exceptional.  My only sadness comes from the knowledge that the Microgravity University program has been cut by NASA. This means that the team will not be able to follow this line of research any further. Intracranial hypertension is serious problem for the future space flight and the team has many ideas for what we would do next time, but there will be no next time. This year was the last year that students that will ever be able to experience this exceptional program and as a teacher I feel a great loss. As a nation we have to be willing to invest in our future.  This program got it right; it has high expectations for students and great reward for all involved. The program develops students with persistence, problem solving skills, and leadership.

I am proud of the Boise State University Microgravity Undergraduate Research team. Each one of them is pretty exceptional, and I look forward to seeing where life takes each of them.