A Project Deferred: Students’ Two-Year Journey Toward NASA Competition Cut Short 

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For the last two years, five seniors at the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) have been working to build a human-powered rover.


The team of students, dubbed the Tech Wolves, was preparing to compete in the NASA Exploration Challenge in April at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, but the competition was canceled because of COVID-19.


Daniel Wallace, a teacher at MASE who has been working with the students, said the team put in hundreds of hours of work, only to be hit with the disappointment of not being able to see that hard work pay off.


NASA’s competition brings students from all over the world to drive their rovers on a course meant to simulate the surface of Mars. The team was just a few more steps away from being able to test its rover when the project was abruptly cut short due to stay-at-home orders and closed schools. Wallace said it took a year and half to get to that point, which is a key point in the building process.


“It doesn’t feel complete for them,” Wallace said. “It’s the biggest thing they’ve probably worked on in their life, which they did everything to make happen, and it’s just left unfinished. Most of these students are kind of used to things not working right for them. But that gets old. Getting this thing finished took so much work and devotion. It’s crazy. They were just looking for their time to shine.”

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Though supervised and advised by Mark Wilson, an instructor at Moore Technical College, Wallace said with quiet determination, the students largely did the project on “their own volition.”


“There was nobody really motivating them to do anything, which is important because teenagers are barely motivated to exist. It was all about creating something and solving the challenge before them. They had to slow down and show attention to details like they never have before. They had to measure things by the thousandths. So they had to take their time, think their way through it, and appreciate what that means.”


Wallace said the focus was not on winning the race, but instead on the process and the opportunity to go to the competition.


“It was never about winning the race,” Wallace said. “Just being able to compete is considered winning. The exposure in itself is amazing. I mean, we are taking kids from here, who might think something like this isn’t in their grasp, to Huntsville to compete with students from all over.”


Meanwhile, those in charge of the competition are looking for ways to reward students for their work.


“Although we are disappointed that it isn’t feasible to host the in-person competition this year, we are pleased to still award several prizes and honors to the teams who have put the work in all year,” said Julie Clift, an education specialist and lead for Rover Challenge. “We are looking forward to welcoming teams back in 2021, which will definitely be a cause for celebration."

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Although the Tech Wolves were never able to drive their rover or compete, Wallace said the amount of technical knowledge the students have gained is invaluable.


Going into the project, Wallace said, the students had no prior knowledge about the machines or technical work: “They don’t know anything when they first walk into the shop. They don’t even know how to read a tape measure. They’ve gained so much knowledge. Fifteen or 20 years down the road, they’ll remember something they learned in the shop. That knowledge will still be there.”


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