Aaron Brown was having dinner with friends when the text message arrived. It was from a student who asked the assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology at MSU Denver whether he was nervous.
Brown wondered why he should be nervous and then it hit him: Curiosity, the $2.5 billion Mars rover, was scheduled to make its white-knuckle landing on the Red Planet, using a device Brown and a handful of other engineers built at a Louisville, Colo., space technology company.
It might seem odd that Brown had forgotten about the big day, but his priorities had changed since working on Curiosity in 2007-08. The one-time professional cyclist (more on that later) had left the world of aerospace contractors four years ago to pursue his passion—teaching at the college level full time.
“I had this really cool opportunity to work on stuff that’s kind of like a dream for engineers,” he says. “But I felt more rewarded through teaching.”
Brown had worked on other space-related projects but nothing quite as high-profile as Curiosity, the robotic explorer that will try to determine whether Mars is or was capable of supporting life. He and his colleagues built the tether mechanism that deployed from a capsule containing the 1-ton rover and lowered it ever-so-gently to the Martian surface.
“The thing we built was very complicated,” Brown says, in a straightforward explanation of mind-bending engineering. “It had lots of parts.”
Brown graduated from Chico State in California in 2001 with a degree in mechanical engineering. But his career path took a different turn: He moved to Italy where he joined a cycling team. He returned to the United States with plenty of job offers, but decided to enroll in grad school at Auburn University and later CU Boulder. He wanted to pursue his engineering studies and, he says, have enough time to continue racing.
But the bike thing wasn’t meant to be. “I was the worst pro cyclist in America,” he says. “My paycheck was pretty small, so I started teaching physics courses in the evening at Front Range Community College.” Even after quitting racing, he continued to teach night classes while working in aerospace, including during his stint on the Mars rover project.
Brown joined the MSU Denver faculty in 2008. “I love my job here,” he says, citing the diversity of the student body. “We have some really talented students.”
And the University’s emphasis on hands-on learning appeals to Brown. The Mechanical Engineering Technology Program “is very focused on real world,” he says. “Having real-world experience helps me relate examples to the students of the things I’ve worked on and the things I’ve seen….We want to produce students that, when they graduate, they’re ready to hit the road running.”
Besides his teaching load, Brown oversees the program’s NASA space grant, which funds activities that encourage students to pursue aerospace careers. Using grant money, students built a robotic vehicle (it sits on his office desk) that took first place last spring at NASA’s Colorado Space Consortium Robotics Challenge.
Brown has also created a pilot course called Humanitarian Engineering. He will be taking 10 to 12 students to Costa Rica for 10 days in January to work on a water project supporting a school under construction.
“I like helping people…You can make a difference in someone’s life,” he says. “That’s why I enjoy teaching. It makes peoples’ lives better.”
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