Space to print

Assistant professor of management Joel Wooten wants to take kids' imaginations into the stratosphere and beyond

University of South Carolina faculty tend to dream big. From education to international business, from aerospace to the arts to medicine and public health, they’re always coming up with a new approach to an old process or a novel solution to some vexing problem. This spring, USC Times, the university’s quarterly magazine for faculty and staff, launched the “Big Ideas” series to give faculty a platform to share their dreams and visions, whether they hope to transform their field, improve higher education or even change the world. These are their stories.

In 2016, I was invited to the White House Frontiers Conference put together by President Obama and co-hosted by Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh. There were six different tracks at the conference. I participated in the inter-planetary track, alongside all these amazing people doing fascinating stuff in space — people like the deputy administrator of NASA, the director of the NSF and the lead investigator of the Jet Propulsion Lab.

Right now, the mission to Mars is just about everyone’s focus. They’re already on that 15-year planning horizon where we have to learn how to grow food in space, and we have to learn how to manufacture in space, etcetera. One of the companies that I ended up talking to is called Made in Space. They put the first 3D printer in space — on the International Space Station — so they can manufacture small things the crew needs. Say you’re fixing something and your wrench floats away. It’s helpful (and cheaper) to manufacture another wrench instead of waiting for one to be sent from Earth.

I started talking with Made in Space about how 3D printing in space could be used in education. They’ve played around with this idea before, so we began dreaming up otions. One is a national contest to help push STEM education forward, whether that’s using Smartphones and tablets, or in classrooms, or through camps like the ones I’m involved with. If there’s a big idea — if I had carte blanche, a blank check — we would launch something like that and change the way that students interact with math and science. Imagine students competing to design a device, seeing an astronaut print it out in real time and then seeing it being used.

It could be super cool, but to get there they would have to learn things like TinkerCAD, so that they can do the design and then send their plans to a 3D printer. They would have to do some test trials, and, in the process, they would learn all of the hardcore engineering skills. All the while they’ve got their eye in the prize, “I’m going to do something in space!”

Everyone looks up at the stars at some point and wonders what’s out there, and what’s possible. Capturing the imagination of students with that kind of platform is the easy part. Saying to them, we’re going to interact with the International Space Station or the Falcon 9 rocket — there are so many avenues to motivate them.

One thing we’ve learned from our innovation camps is that, when it comes to hardcore science problems, ‘hands-on’ works. Students get excited. They’ll dive right into a problem if you first show them what’s possible.

There are a number of groups interested in this type of program. The University of Utah, for example, has a great environment for entrepreneurship and is enthusiastic about doing a test run with a smaller group, then seeing how we can scale it up. Eventually all of this can happen, and it will. We have the contacts. We have the know-how when it comes to running innovation contests. We just need a little time and a little money. All of the other pieces are there.

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