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DRI drone pro takes controls of two Nevada NASA education programs

Craig Sisco and daughter Ashley use a rubber-band car to explore the difference between kinetic and potential energy

DRI scientist Lynn Fenstermaker became a drone guru because of her environmental research. She needed to capture multispectral and color images of test plots from the air, and unmanned aircraft systems fit the bill. Consequently, her work with drones (by the way, she prefers “UAS” to “drone”) made her more and more popular as a guest presenter in schools around Nevada, fulfilling DRI’s educational outreach mission. That, and previous experience working with NASA, made Fenstermaker stand out as the best candidate to take over two NASA programs in the state: the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, and the Space Grant.

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EPSCoR is designed for states, such as ours, that need help improving their science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) infrastructure. It provides funding to hire new faculty, help them carry out their research and, in some cases, buy the necessary equipment. This year, NASA has budgeted $750,000 in EPSCoR funding for Nevada, with the requirement that the state match 50 percent, so the total could be $1.25 million.

Every U.S. state (plus the two territories) gets a Space Grant, but directors like Fenstermaker have to write proposals for projects that NASA approves — usually with some tweaks required — for the funding, which is $430,000 the first year and $300,000 per year for the two subsequent years. Fenstermaker hopes to use it improve the STEM pipeline in the state, getting students hooked on these subjects early on and keeping their interest through college graduation.

“These are collaborative efforts to provide materials to kids in Nevada and get them excited about careers that are a benefit to NASA and other groups engaged in STEM research and development,” Fenstermaker says. “We need more people graduating with these backgrounds in the U.S. so that we can remain a global leader.”

One example of a currently funded project is the balloon satellites that two UNR professors developed for school kids to conduct high-altitude experiments. Students can attach different things to the balloons — bugs, cameras — that are then launched high into the atmosphere. After the balloon satellites land, students chase them down and study the changes that have occurred and data they’ve collected.

“What I’d like to do is take projects like these and make them statewide,” Fenstermaker says. “Two came out of UNR and are focused on the school district up there, but with additional resources and input from faculty in the south, it could be more of a statewide effort.”

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She started the job, which will take up half her time (the other half will be spent continuing her own research) January 2.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.