Mason Peck, MAE, Ralph S. Watts '72 Award
Mason Peck considers himself lucky to teach elective courses that attract students who share his enthusiasm for spacecraft design. "We allow ourselves to geek out about space technology," he says. "I'm not above including a Star Trek reference in a lecture or providing a science-fiction story among the required readings."
The shared passion for space exploration sometimes leads students to Peck's office where they can ask about what it would take to become an astronaut without fear of ridicule. "Someone has warned them that such a goal is a frivolous, childish, or unrealistic career path," he says. "But because we're on the same page about how fascinating we find this field of study, they know it's OK to talk about it."
Peck has led several successful student satellite-building teams and spent time working in the aerospace industry. He brings that real world to his lectures and the students appreciate it. "Mason Peck has had an unusual impact on the education mission of the department," writes Lance Collins, director of the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, in his nomination letter. "He brings an expertise to the department that students are inherently drawn to."
"[The course] gives a great exposure of real engineering work after graduation and tools that are actually used in the real world, that can be used to enhance my work and idea presentations," reads a student evaluation from a class on systems engineering that Peck co-taught.
"The professor's teaching style itself was the strength of the course," reads a student evaluation from Peck's graduate level course Spacecraft Dynamics and Mission Design.
Because Cornell students are so talented, Peck says he can rely on two key teaching strategies. "First, I try to get across that there's a universe of information about the subject matter, that there is not a closed set of ideas that fits perfectly into a one-semester course," he says. "Second, I count on students' eagerness to learn. I'd much rather the lecture go off on a tangent to discuss a student's interesting question than to stay on schedule but, in doing so, fail to engage them."
In his version of the undergraduate spacecraft-engineering course, Peck has turned the "final project" on its head. There is no final project; there is an initial project. "I ask each student to propose an idea for a new spacecraft that they're interested in, and make whatever wild claims they want about its performance," he says. "Then, during the course of the semester, each homework includes questions that allow them to apply the engineering principles they've learned to correct errors in the initial project and refine it until, at the end, there's nothing more to do."
Finding synergy between all aspects of his work is crucial to his success, says Peck. "Find common ground among teaching, advising, and research so that material from one complements the others," he advises new faculty members. "It's possible; you can increase the value of the time you invest; and the students can benefit."