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 December 2005 People
Ryan Deacon

Real Life Learning

For Ryan Deacon, hands-on education is not just a good idea. It’s a way of life.

Deacon, an ASTM student member, is a doctoral candidate in the Materials Science and Engineering department at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. As the teaching assistant for his research advisor, engineering professor Arnold Marder, Deacon works with students in Marder’s senior-level failure analysis class. The class is usually a combination of textbook and lecture work, along with analysis of a variety of broken objects.

A student sections a piece of reinforced carbon-carbon using a Dremel tool. RCC was used on the leading edges of Columbia's wings.

During a sabbatical at Kennedy Space Center in 2004, Marder began to contemplate the prospect of having students in his failure analysis class examine some of the remains of the Columbia space shuttle, which broke up on re-entry over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard. After Marder secured permission from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a number of shuttle pieces were delivered to Lehigh in time for the failure analysis class in the spring of 2005.

The historical significance of the Columbia added new dimensions to the class, according to Deacon. For example, because the shuttle pieces are the property of NASA, security was extremely tight: students had to sign in for the pieces they were studying each time they came to class, and the pieces could never be left unattended.

In addition to security, students (as well as Deacon, Marder and metallographer Arlan Benscoter who also worked with the class) had to deal with the intense media coverage the class received. Deacon feels that the issues of security and media exposure added to the learning experience for students.

Most importantly, working with the pieces of the Columbia gave everyone involved a genuine sense of reverence for the astronauts lost in the crash. Examining the shuttle parts to gather knowledge that will aid space travel in the future has proved to be an appropriate way to honor the memories of the Columbia crew.

In April, the class presented their findings to a group of NASA scientists, including Pamela Melroy, astronaut and space shuttle pilot. “The students were a little nervous, but were very professional about it and I was impressed with how well they did,” said Deacon.

No surprising revelations came out of the failure analysis, which Deacon says might be better termed a materials characterization, of the shuttle parts. “We weren’t doing anything to figure out why the Columbia broke up during re-entry,” he says. “Over 84,000 pieces were recovered, only a few of which played a role in the accident. NASA can’t look at every piece, but the class was able to look at a few pieces that NASA had not examined yet. We were looking at material response to high temperature and high velocity. That’s where we may have contributed a little bit to what NASA knew.”

Deacon’s belief in hands-on learning extends to high school students who might be considering a career in materials engineering. In addition to his work with Marder’s failure analysis classes, Deacon is one of the co-chairs of a Materials Camp held during the summer at Lehigh. The five-day camp, which was sponsored by the ASM Materials Education Foundation, gives high school students in the Lehigh area the opportunity to learn more about materials science and engineering. “It’s a great program,” Deacon says of the camp. “The teaching and organizing is done entirely by graduate student volunteers at Lehigh. The camp started two years ago and we plan on continuing it for awhile.”

As for Deacon’s future plans, he has enjoyed the teaching opportunities he’s had with the failure analysis class and the materials camp, but he plans on earning his Ph.D. and then getting some real-world experience in industry or a national lab before returning to teaching. In addition to his ASTM student membership, Deacon is a member of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of ASM International and was given their outstanding young member award in 2004.

 
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