All eyes on the skies
UND celebrates 50 years of aerospace innovation with new generations dreaming of skyward-focused futures
The energy of the buildings comprising the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences (JDOSAS) was atypical on Feb. 3, an especially cold and blustery Saturday.
Where you would usually see small pockets of students studying in corners or logging weekend flight hours in the simulators, hallways were instead packed with snow boot-clad children, wide-eyed high schoolers, and parents experiencing so much more than a simple escape from the weather.
“We’re very excited,” said Beth Bjerke, associate dean and event organizer. “We don’t have a perfect way of tracking numbers, but I can tell with the overflowing coat racks and the people in the halls that we’re definitely talking at least 2,000 visitors on campus.”
The concept of Community Day was simple – throw open the doors and immerse attendees in the full UND Aerospace experience, from aviation, flight operations and UAS to space studies, atmospheric sciences and sustainability.
The all-access opportunity engaged people in unmanned aircraft races, air traffic control simulations, NASA-based crafts and demonstrations and more. Those looking to stretch their brains could sit in on 15-minute faculty and student research talks on topics ranging from thunderstorms to extraterrestrials.
“Our 50th Anniversary planning committee thought this would be a good way to open up to the community and let folks know what’s here,” said JDOSAS Dean Paul Lindseth. “Over the past couple of years, a lot of the people we’ve talked to don’t really know what goes on inside these buildings. This is our way of giving back to the community and thanking them for all of their support.”
Bjerke added that she sees Community Day as a way to reach two communities – not just those outside of the University.
“There are many on the UND campus who have no idea what we do over in Aerospace,” she said. “I’m hoping that individuals across campus – who work with our students, work with us to help purchase aircraft, and help in all those ways – can come out and see what happens here on a daily basis.”
Atmospheric sciences senior Kaela Lucke stood in the broadcast meteorology studio of Ryan Hall and posed a question to the young man gesturing in front of a large blue wall.
“How’s the weather looking this weekend?” Lucke asked.
“Friday, it’s going to be 11 degrees,” the boy replied, seeing a full regional map appear behind him on a nearby screen.
Guests of all ages tried their luck at potential new career options, including 13-year-old Shawn O’Hearn from Thompson, N.D. He hopped into a flight simulator, took off, flew in a circle and successfully landed.
“I didn’t crash,” he said humbly.
“Shawn, everyone was watching you,” his 9-year-old sister Katie noted. “And, yeah – they knew you were good at it.”
Each Community Day participant was given a map and a passport in which to collect stamps from nearly 20 different activity and display stations, enticing them to check out every nook and cranny of all four campus facilities and the Grand Forks airport.
Some came in with already established professional interests.
“There was a little kid who came in here in his space suit this morning, just the cutest little guy,” Lindseth remembered as his face lit up. “He wants to be an astronaut, obviously. But kids are getting exposed to some neat opportunities.”
Daniel Smith, a UND air traffic control associate helping out with the ATC simulation station, said he hopes he can play a role in drawing more people into the industry.
“I tell them when they come in, you might think back one day, when you’re in this program, that the Community Day you went to many years ago made you fall in love with it – just sitting in the simulator,” Smith said.
A celebration of this size couldn’t happen without an incredible support system. More than 130 faculty, staff and students volunteered to assist with the planning and execution of the event.
Bjerke gave special thanks to her core committee, namely the outreach coordination of Caitlin Nolby and Marissa Saad of the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, the logistical management of Debbie Landeis, Jane Olson and Kelly Sander, and the social media work of UND Aerospace’s Courtney Olson, who Bjerke said used her “creative and marketing genius” to build excitement and drive attendance.
Community groups like the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and local law enforcement also gave their time to answer questions about unmanned aircraft.
For those needing to refuel between stations, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Studies Aaron Kennedy was dishing up pizza, with proceeds supporting a new weather-watching Skycam.
Beyond manpower, the Grand Forks Convention & Visitors Bureau offered a $500 grant to help with printouts, bags and other materials; the UND Aerospace Foundation provided financial support; and the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission and several aviation companies donated tables and tables of prizes for those who completed their passports.
“This is awesome,” said Melissa Cassanelli of East Grand Forks, taking a quick break with her family. “I think we learned a lot,” her husband Mike added, smiling at their son, Andrew.
As the last few visitors passed through the corridors and volunteers began to reset for a new week of learning, Lindseth reflected on the past five hours of “atypical energy.”
“I feel pretty proud as dean for this special day,” Lindseth said. “UND Aerospace is a gem for North Dakota, and in this 50th anniversary year, we’re celebrating that gem – not only in terms of all the faculty, staff and students who have built it into what it is today, but also for all those moving it forward.”