Campus & Community

Students take NASA space tool design to local schools

How hard could it be to break up rocks into chunks? Doesn’t sound too difficult, unless the rock happens to be an asteroid in the farthest reaches of the solar system.

At Palm Beach Gardens Elementary School, PBSC students Robert Kemp (right) and Jessica Nachtman (seated) present the “Panther Claw” space exploration tool designed for a national NASA competition.

A team of six Palm Beach State College students have put their heads together to tackle this problem and have entered their solution in the NASA competition for undergraduates called the Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Teams program or Micro-g NExT. University and community college teams nationwide are vying for the opportunity to have their solutions to real space exploration challenges selected and possibly used by NASA in the future. The chosen teams will travel to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston this summer and work with NASA engineers, scientists and astronauts to test their solution prototypes in the center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which simulates a microgravity environment. (Watch this video on why NASA tests tools and procedures in the NBL.)

Robert Kemp

“Panther Claw”
Teams had a choice of five current problems facing NASA as it works toward the goal of taking humans beyond Low Earth Orbit to explore the solar system, including asteroids. According to the Micro-g NExT website, asteroids are “among the solar system’s most primitive bodies and are interesting to scientists.” The PBSC team chose the challenge to create a “Rock Chip Sampling Device for Microgravity.” This tool is needed to brake off ‘chip’ samples from an asteroid without contaminating the samples and containing them for safe return to Earth. The team showed school pride in calling their device “Panther Claw” and their team the “PBSC Astrocats.”

The detailed proposal was submitted under the guidance of the team’s faculty advisor, Professor Lilian Jordan, named the 2015 Distinguished Engineering Educator by The Engineers’ Council. In addition to teaching physics and astronomy, Jordan advises the College’s Engineering Club—a student chapter of the Florida Engineering Society, in which the team also participates.

“The idea is to engage the students in activities that require them to think critically, do problem solving and apply the knowledge that they’re getting in the classroom and really do hands-on, real-world engineering,” says Jordan. “I want students to think of themselves as future engineers, which means that they see themselves in that role and perform at that level.”

Community outreach underway
In addition to being judged for their solution, the Micro-g NExT competition also requires teams to submit a plan for community outreach. The PBSC team put forth a robust proposal that involves supporting K-12 STEM education and youth mentorship, informing the public about the Micro-g NExT competition, and forming partnerships and mentorships with industry professionals.

The team has already presented its solution at Palm Beach Gardens Elementary School’s Nov. 11 event to encourage interest in the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. More appearances and mentorship efforts are on the team’s calendar through the spring 2016 term.

The team also has a head start in gathering support from College and community experts. Thus far, community support has come from Walter Schafer, a retired engineer; Krystin Berntsen, P.E., past president of the Palm Beach Chapter of the Florida Engineering Society; Russell Joyner, fellow, and George Prueger, senior director and chief engineer, at Aerojet Rocketdyne; and John Fischetti, general manager of the Development Flight Center at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation. College supporters include Professor Gerald O’Brien, who teaches earth science and geology; Professor Oleg Andric, department chair for Electric Power Technology; and Trade and Industry Associate Dean Rick Reeder.

The Micro-g NExT winners will be announced Dec. 9, but whether or not the PBSC team wins a spot—approximately 10 teams will be selected—they will continue in their K-12 outreach efforts in Palm Beach County.

NASA Astrocats
The PBSC Astrocats, from left: Robert Kemp, Tristan Siebeneck, project advisor Professor Lilian Jordan, Jessica Nachtman, Nelson Otero and Joe Dias (not shown: Scott Stearns)

On Dec. 9, the team got news they didn’t want to hear. While disappointed that they didn’t make the cut, they did receive valuable feedback on their proposal from the NASA reviewers and were encouraged to continue their engineering endeavors and compete next year. While not an explanation, Jordan noted, “We were probably one of the very few community colleges participating. We were up against some major universities and upperclassmen.”

However when one door closes, others open, and the 500-plus team-hours put into the project look to pay off in other ways. During the process of developing the their idea and proposal, Jordan and the team reached out to industry partners and got on the radar of major aerospace players in the area “We have gotten very positive responses,” said Jordan. So positive, that students will still have the opportunity to work with experts in the field in the upcoming term. So far, Sikorsky Aircraft and Lockheed Martin, impressed with the students’ work, are on board to advise them on future projects.

Jordan is proud of how well the team worked together and collaborated. “It brought out the best in everyone. I think that that’s why we were able to come up with a proposal we can be proud of; it was a true blue team effort.”

The team:

Tristan Siebeneck (sophomore)
Responsibilities: Lead project manager, work flow supervision, certified dive tester, safety operations, logistics, data collection, quality control, outreach, conceptual design, proposal contributor and editor

Robert Kemp (sophomore)
Responsibilities: Certified diver for our dive testing, experiment videographer, outreach manager, proposal contributor and editor, conceptual design contributor

Jessica Nachtman (freshman)
Responsibilities: Research, data collection and logging, test preparation and procedures planning, logistics for testing and development, proposal contributor and editor, outreach

Scott Stearns (sophomore)
Responsibilities: Prototype manufacturing, manufacturing manager, quality control, outreach participation

Nelson Otero (sophomore)
Responsibilities: Prototype manufacturing, outreach participation

Joe Dias (junior)
Responsibilities: CAD Designer, conceptual design, manufacturing, outreach participation

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