BACKSTAGE PASS: High schoolers go hands-on at Raytheon’s space labs

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They peered into a giant “space simulator,” touched a table that mimics the vibrations of a rumbling Humvee and used a high-speed camera to watch a water balloon pop in exquisite detail.

Thirty-one high-school robotics students who won a tour of Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif., got a firsthand look last month at the fascinating work of the engineers there. The visit was part of the company’s mission to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math.Students in the Innovation Center

 “It’s great that our company is investing in high school kids and showing them what STEM education can do,” said Tony Gentile, an engineer at Raytheon. “It was a pleasure to have them visit, and the kids really appreciated it.”

The team, Titanium Robotics FRC Team 1160 from San Marino, Calif., won the tour through a Twitter contest, part of the Los Angeles Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

Their golden-ticket tweet was a feat of engineering in itself, describing what’s so great about robotics in a mere 102 characters: “FRC 1160 loves robotics because it is a good time with good people, good memories and good innovations.”

The tour included stops at:

  •   Raytheon’s Innovation Center, where engineers meet to collaborate;
  •   The Precision Mechanics Department, where staff used a high-speed camera to show that a water balloon retains its shape for a split second after it pops;
  •   The environmental test lab, where students laid hands on a shake table – one of many devices that Raytheon uses to ensure that its tools can withstand the wrath of Earth and space;
  •   The Failure Analysis Department, where students used an electron microscope to examine a broken screw, learning that detailed images can reveal how and why something breaks;

The students also watched as a teammate donned sterile lab gear and learned what it’s like to dress for work at the space-simulation chamber where Raytheon will soon test its next-generation VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) satellite camera. The simulator is a large vacuum chamber that engineers can heat or cool instantly to mimic a satellite’s flight around Earth.Students and Raymond Plummer take a look at testing equipment in the Precision Mechanics lab.

The suited-up student wore a hair net, mask, gloves and a special jacket outfitted with wires to prevent static discharges. All the students tried the super-powered shoe vacuum, which sucked away possible contaminants from their footwear.

Raytheon has sponsored FIRST Robotics teams for more than 20 years. The 2013-2014 program included 61 teams in eight states.

Raytheon’s participation is part of its larger MathMovesU initiative. That program uses fun, hands-on activities to get students excited about science, technology, engineering and math in the hope of broadening the U.S. talent base in those fields.

The company has also offered college scholarships to FIRST participants since 2004. Each year it awards 40 $1,000 scholarships that can be used at any university. 

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