Launching into Real-World-Ready Education
Southeastern physics and engineering technology students are blasting into unique real-world-ready experiences thanks to a couple of grants totaling almost $16,000 from LaSPACE—(the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium), LaACES (Louisiana Aerospace Catalyst Experiences for Students), and Senior Design Programs.
Dubbed ROOMIE-4 (Remote Observer Of Many Interesting Events), the first year-long project is a simulated NASA mission taken on by two student teams—one composed of undergraduate physics students and the other engineering technology students. Throughout the course of the year, the students design a balloon payload (scientific instrument) that utilizes sensors for taking temperature, light, pressure and humidity readings at the edge of the atmosphere—around 100,000 feet. The goal is to develop a system that interprets input from multiple sensors and stores the data for analysis upon return of the payload.
Grant Principal Investigator and Professor of Physics Gerard Blanchard said the physics students are measuring the effect of the atmosphere on sunlight and explaining physically the changes that they see, while the engineering technology students are measuring the response of the instruments to physical stresses.
“We are currently in the middle of the project,” Blanchard said. “The students have gone through the design phase and are having that reviewed. Now they are in the building phase, which will be followed by the testing phase, and then operation. We have been doing this in physics for about four years now.”
Starting from scratch with no prior knowledge, Blanchard said the students are first trained in electronics, data acquisition using a microcontroller, data analysis, project management, and reporting. “That takes up the fall semester,” he explained. “In the spring, they first design their experiment. This results in the preliminary design review report, which is reviewed by the LaACES program management that makes suggestions for improvement. Then they build a prototype of their experiment that results in the critical design review report.
As part of the project, the team needed to design a suitable housing for the payload that can withstand the extreme temperature and pressure of space, as well as the rigorous turbulence of flight.
“Next up they build and test their actual instrument, which includes a one-day trip to LSU to undergo a mission simulation in a thermal/vacuum chamber,” Blanchard continued. “This results in the flight readiness review that is a go/no go decision for including the team’s experiment on the balloon. The experiments are then launched by balloon from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility and returned by parachute, which means they have to track and recover the experiment somewhere in East Texas. Finally, they present the results of their experiment.”
Consisting of members Justin Woodring, Joshua Davies, and Luc Allain from physics, and Bryce Henry, Ethan McMullan, and William Lamonte from engineering technology, the teams have been working collaboratively since August, and they went through training and hands-on practice activities to prepare them to design, fabricate, and program the payload and launch it in May. The engineering technology team presented
their work virtually at the University of Louisiana System’s Academic Summit in April.
“In the process of completing this project, team members have developed many useful skills, such as soldering, electronics, SolidWorks, programming, and 3D printing,” explained Assistant Professor of Industrial and Engineering Technology Ahmad Fayed. “The project provides students with experience in working on a team, which they will be able to utilize in their engineering careers.”
“This project has given me a lot of opportunities to implement some of the things I’ve been learning throughout my four years at Southeastern. It is also exciting to be challenged to complete tasks and solve problems using what I’ve learned,” Lamonte said. “This project has taught me to be confident in the things I know and rely on that to solve problems and learn the things I don’t. There have been challenging moments, but overall it has been enjoyable to have the opportunity. This project has helped me learn things that hopefully will be beneficial for life after college.”
Blanchard said this is essentially a senior design experience that is standard for engineering programs but that it is an addition to the physics program, and a needed one for 21st-century physics education. “The students also must apply the physics theory that they learned to this experience,” he explained. “It is definitely a real-world-ready experience.”
The project will enhance the education of physics and engineering technology majors, Blanchard explained. Physics majors will gain valuable experience not provided otherwise in the curricula, such as in electronics, CAD, Earth science, and the engineering design process.
“This project is expected to have wider benefits for the Department of Chemistry and Physics by serving as a spotlight project for recruiting and retention of students in the physics major,” he explained. “Engineering technology students will benefit by being provided with an interesting design project with scientific applications.”
The students, he said, will use the data to calculate the atmospheric transmittance spectrum as a function of altitude. The solar spectrometer will also be suitable for re-use for experiments during the upcoming North American solar eclipses, he explained.
The second project involves testing 3D materials for space applications and is supervised by Fayed. The team, including student Brandon Cannella, learned the skills of 3D printing and customization using the MakerBot Replicator + printer, as well as applied the American Society of Testing of Materials standards to test the specimens in both tension and impact settings. The work currently being done was started by former student and now Southeastern graduate Zacharie Day, currently a Crane Systems Engineer at TechCrane International, LLC.
Cannella recently presented his work at the 96th Louisiana Academy of Science in March and was awarded the best oral presentation for his work. He additionally presented his work at the National Council on Undergraduate Research conference virtually in April.
“During this project, I learned how to utilize testing equipment and apply the engineering standards to measure material properties. I also got experience with professional presentations in which my work was reviewed by others,” Cannella said. “I have more confidence in performing professional testing procedures and presenting my results at professional venues.”
In the past decade, 3D printing has been improving significantly, and the use of 3D printed parts has been extending to more crucial industrial and scientific applications, including space applications, Fayed said. Investigations of mechanical properties of different 3D printed materials have been done, but they were limited to some aspects and configurations, he explained.
“There are two types of experiments being used to determine the properties of 3D printed materials. The first is tensile testing, which is accomplished by a machine with two jaws that attempt to pull a specimen apart. Based on the force and elongation, we can determine tensile strength and ductility of the material,” Fayed explained. “The second is impact testing, which uses a large hammer pendulum that breaks notched specimens. The potential energy left after the first swing minus the initial potential energy reveals how much energy was required for breaking, which is an indication of material toughness.”
Cannella said high tensile strength indicates that a material will have higher resistance to pulling forces.
“High impact strength means a material can withstand quick applications of force, or impulse in physics language,” Canella said. “If the materials meet a certain requirement, then they can replace metals.
“In the aerospace industry, weight reduction is a key factor because it allows for lower fuel consumption. Small items, such as springs, screws, buckles, containers, and clamps, can be manufactured out of the PLA (Polylactic acid) materials being tested instead of metal,” Cannella added. “This will reduce costs and production time, which will allow us to launch more spacecraft and, therefore, conduct more research opportunities in our solar system and beyond.”
Acknowledgment: This research was supported in part by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Grant and Cooperative Agreement Number 80NSSC20M0110 through Subaward Agreement PO-0000172372 with the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE).
By Tonya Lowentritt