Down to Earth: Astronaut talks with engineering students about trip to space

The last time Steve Swanson chatted with Colorado State University students and “visited” campus he was 205 miles above the Earth at the International Space Station. The NASA astronaut conducted a live, interactive chat with students in April, sporting CSU gear and holding a Cam the Ram bobble head doll. space chat 2 Swanson returned to Earth in September. He stopped by CSU on October 4 to visit his son and talk to students in a beginning engineering course about NASA and his five-month stint in space. “This is an opportunity you don’t get very often so take advantage of it,” Tom Siller, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and one of the course instructors, told students. The astronaut, who has made three trips to space, talked briefly and then fielded questions for the next 40 minutes. Here are some questions students asked Swanson and his answers: What kind of work did you do at the International Space Station? My main job was to do science. It is basically a national laboratory. There are about 170 experiments aboard. I wasn’t the principal investigator but I worked on experiments and kept the space station running. I spent 40 percent of my time on the science, 40 percent maintaining the ship and 20 percent of my time working out and staying in shape. Ten years ago, people didn’t work out while in space and it took them much longer to recover when they returned. What is it like to be in zero gravity? Steve in Space It’s actually really fun and one of the best parts about being in space. It never gets old doing a flip off the wall. But it does make it hard to do work. You have to learn that you can’t just set your tools on a workbench until you need them. They float away after a few seconds. You learn to tape them down and store them so they don’t float away. How is the food in space? The food in space has to have a shelf life of four years so that sh ould tell you a lot. It doesn’t have much flavor but if you put enough sriracha sauce on it, you can eat it. Am I happy to be home and eating regular food? Yes. How did you feel when you got back? The landings are like being in a car crash, but you are in a seat that is molded to your body. It’s not a soft landing. Once we landed, the first guy got out and then I had to move over and pull myself up for the first time in five and a half months. The first day I was very wobbly because it was my first time walking in a while.  Once I got to Houston, I underwent eight hours of testing where doctors took blood and biopsied my muscles. Eight days after landing, I was back to my pre-flight levels.

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The Earth Sciences need women!

In the United States, men outnumber women in many science and engineering fields by nearly 3 to 1. In fields like physics or the geosciences, the gender gap can be even wider. Emily Fischer, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, is the lead investigator on a $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant to close that gap in the geosciences, which encompass mining and geology, atmospheric sciences, issues related to natural resource management, natural disaster forecasting, and oceanography. Developing a program Fischer and her team intend to bolster the number of female undergraduate students earning degrees in the geosciences or going on to graduate school in these fields. They are developing a program to be piloted on the Colorado Front Range and in the Carolinas. Team members include: Silvia Sara Canetto, CSU psychology professor; Paul R. Hernandez, professor of educational psychology at West Virginia University; Laura Sample McMeeking, associate director of CSU’s STEM Center; Rebecca Barnes, professor of environmental sciences at Colorado College; Sandra Clinton, professor of geography and earth sciences at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and Manda Adams, a professor associated with the University of North Carolina-Charlotte who is currently on an appointment at NSF (working with the geoscience project team as part of her independent research and development program). Emily Fischer “We want to build the pipeline of female students entering the geosciences,” Fischer said. “Females are underrepresented in the geosciences – at about 16 percent of the workforce. That is the picture in my field too - women represent about 15 percent of atmospheric scientists. It’s even lower when you get into geology.” 2015 and beyond Starting in 2015, the team will recruit 50 first-year female students from CSU, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Wyoming to attend a workshop where they will learn about educational and career opportunities and meet peers with similar interests. The team will simultaneously recruit a cohort of students from the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Duke University, and the University of South Carolina. From there, the students will be mentored in person by local members of the Earth Science Women’s Network, a nonprofit organization. In addition, female students will have access to a web platform that will enable national-scale peer mentoring. “We are patterning this intervention after outreach programs that we know have been successful with advanced undergraduate and graduate-level women,” Fischer said. “We want to see if this can work with female undergraduate students and get more of them interested in pursuing careers in the geosciences.” Canetto, Hernandez, and Sample McMeeking also will evaluate the program’s effectiveness. The goal is to design an effective, inexpensive recruitment and retention program that can be a model for other universities. “There is evidence that mentoring seems to be an effective tool for women in various disciplines, but there is no scientific data for women in the geosciences,” Fischer said. “We want to collect real data from these students. We want to understand whether mentoring works for undergraduate women in the geosciences and exactly how beneficial these efforts could be.”

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