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15 mins read 17 Jun 2021

Megan Badger talks STELLAR STEM

There are many STEM education programs available to schools, but not many can claim to provide a fully functioning rocket engine to high school students. This multi-faceted program is bringing a new dimension to school and industry partnerships as well as creating enthusiasm for the space industry. 

The HAILI Rocket Engine has been designed to be taken apart and rebuilt, providing learning opportunities in a number of areas from electronics to 3D printing. Credit - PFI Aerospace

The STELLAR STEM program, a series of interactive workshops helping to create interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, launched earlier this year with plans to deliver further workshops to low socio-economic schools in Brisbane, Ipswich, and Logan. The program, which makes use of the in-house designed and built Hybrid All-Inclusive Learning Instrument (HAILI) rocket engine, brings together STEM professionals and rocket technology to inspire students to consider STEM careers.   

Megan Badger, General Manager of PFI Aerospace is the driving force behind HAILI and the Science of Rockets STEM program. In this interview, we find out how the program is bringing rockets and STEM to school kids. 

Thanks for chatting with SpaceAustralia.com, Megan. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey into the space industry?

So I'm the general manager of an aerospace company and we're a startup, so we've been in operation for just over 12 months, and It's everything that I expected and more. [It is] the more part that brings me the most joy.

I work in the space industry, which again, [is an] ultimate lifelong goal, and I've achieved it.

I've always been passionate about space. The first thing that I learned by rote was the planets in order from the Sun. So that just gives you an idea of how obsessed I was as a child. I did astronomy as a major when I was in high school and then when I finished high school, realised that there was no space industry. 

It was extremely difficult, not just to get into that industry, as there wasn't one, but also to be a woman going into STEM in that time period. It wasn't really the expected thing for a woman to do. So I felt very dejected and a little bit let down by the system, I guess because I'd had all these expectations about what I wanted to do with my life, all of it involved being part of the space industry. Unfortunately for me, those expectations weren't met.

How does PFI fit in here?

So the original company PFI, which stands for Products or Industry, is a manufacturing company. They do robotics and automation mainly in the food and beverage industry.

Because there are so many opportunities in defence and aerospace they were seeking to expand out into those areas, so myself and the CEO of the company, Nick Green, worked in business development in those areas. We were the first people to have an official visit at the Australian Space Agency when the logo was still a circle with Australian Space Agency written in it before they had an official logo, and when they were located in Canberra. We were at the convention where it was announced that there was a space agency, which is also the same place that we got to see Elon Musk speak.

That is daily life. It's exciting. We meet people who are just as passionate about the space industry as we are. [W]e also get to support an industry that is a baby industry. It's a fledgling so being a part of that, that initial growth and that excitement, it's a really good time to be a part of [the] space industry.

What is HAILI?

While we were doing business development for PFI we designed and built a fully functioning hybrid rocket motor demonstrator as a way of demonstrating our capabilities to show that we were more than just general engineering. 

It got the attention of schools, schools wanted to have a program like that in their classrooms, but unfortunately, that motor was too big, [it was] 350kg, so a smaller model was designed and that's the Hybrid All-Inclusive Learning Instrument (HAILI). 

She, (HAILI) is also a fully functioning hybrid rocket motor, but suitable for classroom use. Currently, she's out in 16 schools around Queensland as far north as Bowen and she has a full 12-month curriculum to accompany her. She teaches students advanced manufacturing techniques, shows them all the different types of advanced manufacturing technologies, and allows them to have that direct link with industry. 

A close up of the HAILI rocket engine system. The system has been designed for school students to show the skills that the STEM industry needs now and in the future. Credit - Ruth Harrison

What is STELLAR STEM?

So STELLAR, which is an extreme passion project of mine, came about through an opportunity through the federal government. We applied for the makers' STEM Community engagement Grant and we won the grant. We [are now] able to deliver a series of events to 13 schools, [which are] all low socioeconomic schools and are to promote women in STEM.

[I do] leadership and management workshops with the students, Dr Kaye Spark who is an environmental scientist, and Harriet Angus, who is a mechanical engineer. We go in and we talk to the students, do hands-on workshops with them and then at the end of the day fire off the hybrid rocket motor. 

It's our way of putting women in STEM in front of girls who want to get into STEM so they can see that there are women in these industries. There are female engineers. There are female scientists. There are female leaders. People that they can look up to and aspire to be. 

They don't have to settle for what society [dictates], and it is still a problem no matter what people say, women are still being told that there are certain jobs that they can't do because of their gender and so we're trying to, break through those barriers by putting ourselves in front of these girls and saying we can do it and so can you. 

Why did you think a rocket engine would be the best way to engage girls in STEM?

Oh, many things. It's not specifically about engaging girls. It's about engaging everyone but it encompasses so much. So the first stage of that is that it encompasses all of the different advanced manufacturing techniques. We've got electronics. We've got programming. We've got 3D printing. We've got metal fabrication. We've got CNC machining.

All of that comes together in one unit. It ties in directly to the space industry. Space is, has always and continues to be inspirational to people. But it also is a physical demonstration of how STEM  should look in industry. 

In schools at the moment, all of the acronyms in STEM are separated, so you've got science as a field of expertise and engineering as a field of expertise and in schools, they're all kept separate, but in industry it all blends together. Everything works together and we're trying to break that communication barrier between schools and industry so that they recognise that students need to have transferable skills. They need to be able to think cross dimensionally and part of why we use HAILI in these demonstrations in these events is because she does physically demonstrate all of these systems coming together as a whole.

And also she's awesome, rockets are just awesome.

What has been the response so far to the program?

Overall, teachers have been enthusiastic to take up the program, but there have been some cases where the schools have been enthusiastic to take out the program, but the teachers have been perhaps lacking in confidence, thinking that it's too technical, and I think there are some cases where adults underestimate the capabilities of students.

I think that they forget that students are creative and innovative and they want to solve problems, they want to be challenged. What we've noticed with the science of rockets and with HAILI is the kids that may usually get low grades are getting so much more engaged in their school work.

Because it's a different way of learning, they get to have that hands-on experience. They get to touch and move and create and solve problems. Instead of everything being just in pen and paper. Now, I particularly am extremely academically minded so pen and paper is my wheelhouse. 

I've always been good at that side of academia, but there's a huge percentage of students that work better when they can actually have something in front of them that they can take apart and put back together, learn the inner workings of and with this program, we're trying to cater to all of those learning abilities and trying to take kids out of their textbooks and give them more opportunities to learn and more methods of learning.

There are so many students that fall between the cracks because the education system doesn't cater to their way of learning, and it's not that they're not smart, it's that they learn differently. We have seen so many people, particularly in low socioeconomic areas, that may have difficulties at home, that go into school, that could be brilliant, that can do great things, but their confidence gets shattered. 

If you put something in front of them that they can work with and tinker with and play with. Their grades start going up, and they start getting more confidence.

Mechanical Engineer, Harriet Angus, explaining the HAILI rocket engine to teachers at an industry conference. Credit - Ruth Harrison

What does the future workforce look like and how does this program help?

Well, there's so much pressure for students to go to university and they see that as the only pathway to success. Whereas in industry technical skills are so much more important. [W]e’ve got a huge skills shortage with technical skills, trade skills, people who have those hands-on abilities. 

[W]hat we're really crying out for, and it's not just our company, it's across all industries, are highly skilled tradespeople.

So another motivation for doing this project is providing the knowledge to students that this is where there are career pathways and that you don't have to go to university to be successful, you can be successful through doing trades which in the past has been seen as the fail option. It’s not a fail option at all. People don't realise highly skilled tradespeople are often paid a lot more than engineers. In our company that is more often the norm because it's so hard to find highly skilled tradespeople that you don't want them poached by another company who also need highly skilled tradespeople. 

There are a myriad of STEM programs out there, what is special about yours?

It's industry-grade technology. It's not a gimmick, it's a fully functioning hybrid rocket motor. It's an actual functioning space system, and I guess that comes back to our motto as well, “It's not rocket science, it's the science of rockets”. We are really trying to break through the mental barriers that students put out where they think things are too hard, and if it's too hard, why should we try that. 

And we have a new space industry that has started up, it's only a few years old and we are going to need a huge influx of skilled people entering that workforce over the next decade. [A]ll of those students are currently going through high school, and if they think that space is too hard they're not going to be in the space industry. We're not gonna be able to fill those jobs that are coming up. So giving them a real piece of space technology that is specifically designed to be at a high school level, but still at an industry-standard it gives them that direct link to industry and it also proves to them that anybody can do these things. They just have to have a passion for it.

You launched the STELLAR program earlier this year, why was it important that you went to Hymba Yumba Independent School?

We've had a lot of collaboration with the Springfield city group, and we've been talking to them about other projects in their area. It was actually one of the members of Springfield city group who remembered that Hymba Yumba was part of their region, they're an Independent School, they had been on our list to do the STELLAR programs, so we reached out to them and asked if they'd be willing to host us.

Inclusivity is extremely important and having an indigenous school participate in the program was again our way of giving back to the community, giving them opportunities that they may not have had, and also reminding them that these things are possible for everybody.

[It was] so much fun!

The students were really engaged. They had a lot of fun, they loved the motor firing. They particularly liked one of the workshops, the one that Harriet [Angus] works on, they get to actually work on components of the HAILI. The fact that they can sit at their desks and be putting together and taking apart pieces of a working rocket motor. Again, it's breaking those mental barriers.

How do you help to explain what a career in STEM looks like?

We started with a question and answer panel to gauge what students thought STEM careers looked like or even to ask about the sorts of careers that they wanted to get into. We had a lot of people who wanted to get into business, but they didn't really know what getting into business meant. They just used it as a general term and we had a few people who wanted to be mechanics, but there weren't really any specific goals. They wanted to get a job, but they didn't really know what their options were.

I think they've been picking up on catchphrases about certain things, but it's all so general. So asking those questions to them and then letting them know what's actually involved in those jobs made them think a little bit clearer. So you know the people who wanted to get into business having a talk to them, [telling them] that it involves a lot of talking to people, but also involves a lot of maths and also involves a lot of paperwork. They didn’t realise that those things were going to be involved in doing business so it was a little bit of an eye-opener for them.

Then letting them come in and see people who work in STEM industries and what's involved in our jobs gave them, I guess an inside look into the information that they may not be getting so moving forward, that's something that I would like to pursue in the future. 

The next step for the program is to go national, what does that mean for the program?

We haven't got anything written in stone yet. Obviously going national is a very big step, it involves an increase in our staff numbers, it involves an increase in our production numbers and alongside that we also need to have technicians who know how to support schools to use the technology. 

At the moment we've got a team of two people that are supporting the 16 schools that we currently have. It's a full-time job and we don't want schools to feel like they're being abandoned, to feel like they're just being shoved a product and they have to deal with it on their own. It's really important for us to make sure that going through this process because, we're I guess instilling a new way of teaching and a new way of learning, to make sure that they get as much support as possible to help to facilitate that to flow easily into what they're currently doing. 

Megan Badger, General Manager, PFI Aerospace - Credit - Megan Badger

How does a school get on board?

So we have numerous methods of getting in contact. The main one would probably be to go to the Science of Rockets website and there are links to put you in an expression of interest for your school.

We have an education manager and an education liaison officer, and both of those people are very fast to respond and get in contact with schools. The other thing that is really important is to engage the industry so we're seeking industry partners who can sponsor schools to do the program and this is particularly important for low socioeconomic schools because again we want everyone to be able to be involved in this program.

Because a lot of the students who are coming through this program are going to be the next highly skilled tradespeople that these industries are looking for, we think that it should also come back to them to take some responsibility for their own future workforce. 

How does a potential industry partner get involved?

Generally, they sponsor a school at the moment and it doesn't have to be full sponsorship. We've got some companies that do part sponsorship with schools, so the industry partner will pay for a percentage and then the school will pay the remainder. We've got some companies that come in and just want to pay for the entire school and then we've got other companies that want to do a number of schools.

But we're extremely flexible. We would rather work with industry and work with schools to find out what is the best relationship that's gonna make that connection happen. The other important thing about that is having an industry partner in the space industry, somebody who needs their skilled workers in the future, connecting them directly to schools, enabling them to give that information, to have that communication pathway going backwards and forwards. 

So that they can say these are the jobs that we have, these are the skills that we need, these are the areas that you can pursue if you're interested in working with us. This is what our daily jobs involve and, this is what it looks like, this is what we do.

Again, breaking down those communication barriers and helping to connect education back to the industry.