Exploratory Learning

Everyone involved with Mach 30 is always learning and growing, whether it be from conversations on social media outlets like Facebook or Google+, activities like the book club , or our weekly Hangouts. Another way we learn is by simply doing. When we started our Shepard Test Stand hardware project, we weren’t exactly sure how things were going to work. There was no tried and true method for developing spaceflight hardware using a tool like Open Design Engine (ODE), and we knew there would be growing pains. That’s one of the many reasons we started with a small scale project like Shepard instead of tackling something bigger.

Our engineering process was largely created and refined during the course of that first test stand project, and is now being applied (and further refined) in the creation of our newest project – a satellite tracking Ground Station . One of the things that’s been most interesting to me to watch has been how certain pieces of a project are best developed. The first thing I noticed is that there is a lot of power in spinning up a forum post on a step in the design process and then letting the discussion take its own course. Using the ODE forums for the initial discussion has two main advantages that I see:

  1. It gives everyone a chance to participate. If we hold a Google+ Hangout at 5PM EST in the U.S. to do the design of a widget from scratch, people in other U.S. timezones (or parts of the world) may very well not get a chance to participate. Posting a step of the design process on the forums and then leaving it for a day or two, or until the discussion runs its course, allows more people to give their input.
  2. It gives everyone a chance to think. Sometimes you just need to sit on a thought for a day or two before your ideas really become clear. You might have even posted an idea to the forums earlier in a day, and then a better way of doing that thing, or a major flaw in your idea sends you right back to the forums to post a retraction or revision. Using this form of communication gives you that time to think.

In some cases, the forums are all you need to complete a step in our engineering process. For example, on the Ground Station project we were able to complete steps 1 through 3 of our engineering process without ever having a face-to-face meeting. In step 1 we answered the high level whys and hows of the project. Questions like “Why are we building this?” and “How is this going to be used?” are what we tackle here. Step 3 involves creating a diagram so that it’s easy to see all the parts of what we want to build and how they all fit together. Then step 2 of the engineering process, which involves creating requirements that use words like “must” and “shall”, naturally come out of step 1. Requirements create a measuring stick that helps us make sure a project is doing what it’s supposed to.

Now, all of that is not meant to give the idea that forums are the be-all and end-all of project communication. One you’ve had the initial discussions in the forums, we’ve found that it’s often best to do those “in person” meetings using tools like Google+ Hangouts to help solidify and finalize decisions. This seems to be especially important with things like mechanical, electrical, and software design which often are easier to finalize when discussed face to face. On our preliminary design for instance, which is where we come up with a rough idea of what parts we need for a project, we may start out in the forum to give everyone a chance to contribute, but then we hold a Hangout to finalize the preliminary design. We discuss in real-time what everyone has put forth in the forum and distill it all down to a plausible design.

We realize that our processes will continue to evolve and be refined as we continue our work to enable the human race’s journey to the stars. Each project we do brings with it new lessons and opportunities for growth both on a personal level, and an organizational one. We encourage you to join us as we grow towards completing our mission.

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