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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Aero-Astro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2006–2007 issue of Aero-Astro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hand and mind … and heart

Three Aero-Astro students blend engineering skills and social conscience to better the world

MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics students are members of a unique group. The scope of their skills and interests is astounding. When their innate talents are fortified by their experiences and learning at MIT, they become not just engineers, but engineering leaders. However, some of them become leaders even before they have donned caps and gowns. There is little more exciting and rewarding than to see our students employing their engineering know-how to tackle some of the world’s most pressing social issues. Here, we learn from three of our students how they are working to better the lives of others: one by fostering community and academic relationships with a developing country; another, through her own non -profit corporation, improving the lives of impoverished street children; and a third who has founded an consortium to study sustainable transportation technologies. The MIT motto, “Mens et Manus,” implores our community to employ its “Minds and Hands.” These students add a third element: they are using their minds, their hands, with heart. Here, in their own words, are their stories.

Danielle Adams

I’m Danielle Adams and I completed my bachelor’s degree in Aero-Astro in 2005. I’m a second year Masters candidate in both Aero-Astro and the Technology and Policy Program. For my Master’s research, I’m exploring the conditions under which technology that relies on satellites can be used to meet needs in developing countries. I’m particularly interested in how such technology might be applied in Africa. However, my interest in Africa extends far beyond my research; it comes from years of volunteerism in both the eastern and southern areas of the continent.

On a visit to South Africa, Aero-Astro Master’s candidate Danielle Adams discusses joint projects for MIT students and their University of Pretoria colleagues with UP School of Engineering Chairman Josua Meyer (right). Joining Adams are Aero-Astro head Wesley Harris (left) and UP Mechanical Engineering Professor Stephan Heyns. (William Litant photograph)

Danielle Adams

I first visited Africa in 2001 when I volunteered with an agency that serves homeless children in Kenya. That summer I taught reading and math lessons to young girls from the Nairobi slums. I was able to return to Kenya in 2002 and 2004 and do tutoring in math and science with some of the same children. In 2005, with the urging of department head Professor Wesley Harris, I started working on behalf of the Aero-Astro of to foster a relationship between our department and the University of Pretoria. In particular, our department collaborates with the UP Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. We are developing plans to establish a student exchange, student community service internships, and faculty research collaborations with this university.

In June 2006 I traveled with a team of six others from MIT to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa. There, we conducted a week-long communications seminar for a class of fourth year mechanical engineering students. The focus of the training was to give them confidence in technical presentations.

My long-term goal is to serve as a consultant to developing country governments on the topic of space based technology. I am eager to encourage young minority and women students to learn math and science skills, and I hopes that my work and her example will enable many new leaders to be educated.

While at first it appeared that volunteer work could have little relation to what I was learning about aerospace engineering at MIT, I quickly found ways to connect my interest in Africa with my interest in space. I added science to the lessons I was teaching former street girls in Kenya and helped them learn about the properties of airplanes. And then, the Department gave me an opportunity to work on developing a relationship with an African university in Pretoria, South Africa. And, now I’ve fully integrated my passions: I am researching how satellite-based technology can be used to meet national needs in African countries.

Nicki Lehrer

My name is Nicki Lehrer. I’m an Aero-Astro senior and the founder and president of the nonprofit organization Children of Guayaquil, the purpose of which is to help Ecuador's most impoverished street children. My adventure began in the fall of 2005 when I took a semester leave of absence to live and work in the poorest regions of Ecuador. The journey landed me in the southern town of Pascuales where I was struck by the number of children surviving on the streets during the day — without food, without clothing, without shoes, and without education.

Returning to the states, I founded Children of Guayaquil, which is named for the most populous city in Ecuador. The organization is dedicated to providing a safe haven for these children, protecting them from the drugs, alcohol, and prostitution that plague the streets of the town. Since the foundation’s incorporation in 2006, I have managed to raise more than half of the money needed for construction of a children's community center in Pascuales; collected thousands of pounds of clothing, shoes, toys, and school supplies for the children, and united leaders from the region to work together towards the common goal of providing a better future for the children.

Nicki Lehrer

Nicki Lehrer with Andrea, a 10-year-old who will soon be a beneficiary of a community center in that Leherer is organizing for impoverished children in Pascuales, Ecuador.

As an additional benefit of this project, I have fostered a relationship between MIT and the Ecuadorian University of San Francisco. The goal is to encourage international cooperation between students and professors who are collaborating and learning from each other while working to help the children of Pascuales. MIT Architecture Professor Jan Wampler conducted a class last semester dedicated to the design of the community center in Pascuales. Professor Wampler’s entire class joined me in Ecuador during the 2007 MIT Independent Activities Period to present its models and drawings at the town celebration. More than 800 people from Pascuales came to the celebration to learn and participate. There was music, food, dancing, and laying of the first stone where the children put their hand prints in the concrete to mark the start of a better future.

In the future, I look forward to taking a more technical approach, addressing such needs as clean water, better electricity, and drainage system. The thought processes and problem solving skills that I have learned through my Aero-Astro curriculum really helped me approach the challenges that arise in this type of work. Although the application is very different from what we are used to in a class setting, my engineering education from MIT continues to be very useful in helping to make this project a success.

For more information, to learn about the children that are receiving support, see pictures, and find out how you to help, please visit

Robyn Allen

I’m Robyn Allen, I’m an Aero-Astro senior, and my goal is to contribute to ending global warming. I am the founder and co-director of the Vehicle Design Summit, an international, student-led consortium aimed at leapfrogging sustainable transportation technologies.

Robyn Allen at the MIT Museum with a car her Vehicle Design Summit built to enter the Automotive X-Prize 200 mpg vehicle competition. (William Litant photograph)

Robyn Allen

The department's multidisciplinary design challenges and overall systems pedagogy drew me to study Aero-Astro, but in addition to my technical learning objectives, I had an insatiable curiosity for learning something else: how does one build and sustain a highly innovative design team such as the one that built the SR-71 Blackbird? I believe that a number of such teams all working on different aspects of global energy efficiency are a prerequisite to resolving the catastrophic climate change issues that face us today.

The Vehicle Design Summit aspires to be one such design team. We seek teams of university students from up to 50 schools around the world (so far we have 25 such teams in 15 countries) to each design and build subsystems of a single 200 mpg-equivalent automobile for entry into the Automotive X-Prize competition

I steer both the technical vehicle objectives and overall structure of the consortium. Last summer during our pilot project, we invited and hosted 55 students from 21 different universities in 11 countries for a nine-week, all-out, 24/7 design-build program. All of these students worked as volunteers all summer, creating four full-scale driving prototypes from scratch. Our core managers recruited the participants, raised the money, sourced and ordered all of the hardware components, ran design reviews and evaluated team performance, developed and implemented the schedule of technical milestones, and handled requirements evolution.

Experiences such as the 16.82 Mars rover course and mentorship from Aero-Astro alum John Langford, president of Aurora Flight Systems, enabled me to advance both my academic and pre-professional goals through VDS. More importantly, Aero-Astro's commitment to student-led initiatives enables VDS to make this opportunity available to many MIT students wishing to participate. Without this advice and guidance, it would never have been possible for me to be in the lead of a growing 500-person global team as a 21-year-old. 

Ending global warming is one thing, but to put electrical, mechanical, and aerospace engineers next to management students, materials scientists, programmers, future policymakers, journalists, economists, physicists, and dreamers in a capstone class which creates both a marketable product and a story that captures the world's imagination – now that is a revolution I want to make happen.

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