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updated: 12/6/2013 2:19 PM

Former astronaut says engineering not just desk job

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  • Dr. Albert Sacco Jr. talks about his 16 days in space to a group of middle and high school students gathered at Harper College for a program put on by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and UOP.

      Dr. Albert Sacco Jr. talks about his 16 days in space to a group of middle and high school students gathered at Harper College for a program put on by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and UOP.
    Courtesy of Harper College

 
Submitted by Harper College

Take it from a former astronaut: A career in engineering doesn't mean sitting at a desk all day.

No one knows that better than Dr. Albert Sacco Jr., who recently wowed more than 300 middle and high school students gathered at Harper College with stories about his 16 days aboard the space shuttle Columbia.

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Sacco, who served as the payload specialist for 1995 space mission, was the keynote speaker at a youth program put on by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

From the centrifuge training exercise astronauts endure to the relatively close call the shuttle had with space debris, the young students couldn't get enough of the scientist's stories.

"I didn't want to come home," Sacco told the spirited group. "I was like a kid in a candy store."

The program, put on Nov. 14-15 with help from Harper and Des Plaines-based UOP, a petroleum refining supplier and technology licensor, aimed to teach students exactly what engineering is, the wide variety of career paths and the chance to interact with professionals. Participants also took part in friendly competitions and learned about green fuels as the energy supply of the future.

"It's not just sitting at a desk doing calculations," Rick Isherwood, regional service manager at UOP, said of engineering. "Studying math and science prepares you for many opportunities, and this will give them an idea of what engineers do and where it can all lead."

Many of the students also heard from assistant engineering professor David Lavan about Harper's selective Engineering Pathways program, which guarantees admission for qualifying students to the prestigious College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"It's been really successful," Lavan said. "We're already fielding applications for third class."

Sacco, who conducted 200 experiments while on shuttle mission STS-73 in materials science, biotechnology, combustion science and fluid mechanics, made sure his audience knew math and science was the key to getting beyond the Earth's orbit. He urged the young students try to think globally as they forge ahead in their studies.

He outlined several areas he believes the gifted group of scientifically minded students should focus on including efforts to improve the availability of alternative energy sources; the production of food and clean water; the control of pandemic and personalized medicine; and sustainable education and the need to constantly upgrade oneself.

"I hope you'll take up that challenge," he said.

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