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How can engineering students and professional instrument makers learn from each other?

By shooting for the sky.

David Smith (University of Colorado at Boulder) and Jim Holt (NCAR) survey blueprints. Photo by Carlye Calvin.
Jack Fox was in for a surprise. As an engineer with NCAR's Design and Fabrication Services, Fox helps to oversee the building and design of new observing instruments created at an in-house machine shop. One morning he walked "stone-cold" into a meeting where scientists from NCAR and the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) had assembled.

The group was discussing a new and innovative collaboration between NCAR and LASP: a project where high school and college students would design and build a bona fide spacecraft. NCAR's role would be to help the students translate their ideas for the spacecraft structure, as expressed in mechanical drawings and geometry, into a finely tuned set of components using cost-effective designs and computerized machining techniques.

"The whole concept was for the students to do everything right up to running the machine," says Fox. "That's where we were asked to lend our guidance in how to design the parts."

There are plenty of slapdash student projects done in a few caffeine-powered evenings, but this wasn't one of them. SNOE (pronounced "snowy") involved more than a year of collaboration between the student engineers and the machinists, along with NCAR solar physicist Thomas Woods and engineers at LASP and Ball Aerospace. The resulting instrument is scheduled for launch in 1997.



SNOE, the Student Nitric Oxide Experiment


NCAR Design and Fabrication Services (part of its Atmospheric Technology Division); high school and college students in the Denver area; the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado; Ball Aerospace; Orbital Sciences Corporation (launch vehicle)


To involve students in the design and construction of a low-cost spacecraft and instrument package


Collaboration among machinists, engineering students, and project scientists and engineers


Construction and testing in Boulder; launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California


Design and construction, 1995-96; testing, 1996-97; launch, scheduled for mid-1997

The Student Nitric Oxide Explorer

SNOE's task in space is to study how nitric oxide in the rarefied region 60 to 400 kilometers (38 to 250 miles) above ground responds to variations in incoming solar energy. This part of the atmosphere is vulnerable to soft X-rays and energetic electrons thrown from the sun, which mostly do not penetrate the denser, lower air. Although nitric oxide is only a trace gas at these altitudes, it is exquisitely sensitive to solar input, and it plays a key role in the superheated energy transfers that take place in the study region, especially during aurora-producing solar storms.

SNOE was one of the first two missions chosen for the Student Explorer Demonstration Initiative, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Universities Space Research Association. The goal is to prove that spacecraft can be built and deployed through student help at a much lower cost than usual, with the added benefit of real-world experience for the students. The entire SNOE mission, excluding the launch vehicle and launch services, will cost around $4 million--peanuts for a spacecraft and instrument package. From day one of their work together, the students and machinists got along famously.

"It was a very hands-on, apprentice-type relationship. For most of the students it was their first chance to design something," says Michael McGrath of LASP. McGrath directed the structural and thermal design process.

"It was a very nice experience," says NCAR machinist James Holt. "I was impressed at the students' level of common sense and competence. They adapted to things that take a machinist years to learn through experience." At first, he notes, there was an inevitable learning curve to be overcome. "The students were dimensioning things the way they learned in school, which isn't always the way it's done in industry." For example, a student might specify the angle of a support rod in relation to an imaginary point in space, which is fine on a blueprint but harder to deal with in actual construction.

As he guided the students into real-world design, Holt introduced them to computer-aided machining, a largely automated system for building parts to strict tolerances at record speed. "We called it 'parts-while-you-wait.' The students couldn't believe it. They'd turn the parts over and over in their hands." Later, Holt went to LASP and helped the SNOE crew set up their own computer-aided machining system, supported by a year's loan of software from the commercial firm that supplies NCAR with machining software.

Some of the dozen or so SNOE students earned academic credit for their work; others were paid. Many found new perspectives on the career paths taking shape before them.

New to aerospace, Heather Reed joined SNOE as a structural designer in the first year of her master's degree in mechanical engineering. "I've really enjoyed working with spacecraft. I've discovered that I can work as a mechanical engineer in the aerospace business, but if the jobs in aerospace aren't there, I can go for other kinds of mechanical design."

One of the biggest jobs fell into the hands of one of the youngest students. Adrian Sikorski was introduced to SNOE when his computer drafting class at a suburban Denver high school helped with preliminary designs. He spent the summer after graduation working full time for the project in Boulder, then went to part-time status while he started college a half-hour drive away at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.

Sikorski, a whiz at mechanical drawing, was asked to be what he calls the "detail-keeper." He maintained the master set of plans for the SNOE instrument, constantly revising them as needed. "I had to make sure there was one drawing with everything on it. Sometimes it would change minute by minute and other times it would go days or weeks without changing.

"This has had a really big effect on how I view engineering. Everyone had always mentioned teamwork to me, but I hadn't actually been on a team. I'd thought of teamwork as functioning like a committee, but it's more individualized than that in SNOE. You have a specific role."

SNOE students, from left to right: David Smith, Rebecca Hage, Heather Reed, Andrew Hunt, Lance Lininger, Steve Steg, and Adrian Sikorski. Photo by Carlye Calvin.

Students, machinists, and scientists met at LASP in the spring of 1996 to christen the completed instrument. It was a satisfying moment, but not the end of the story. In the year before its 1997 launch, the instrument is being run through a series of tests to make sure it can hold up under 14 times the force of gravity with about 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of weight attached.

Steve Steg, a senior in mechanical engineering, sensed the importance of the testing. "What I really got out of this was seeing how a prototype is made, rather than a mass-produced thing. Before I started here, I wasn't that interested in aerospace, but this has definitely sparked an interest. It's really challenging." When it comes to spacecraft, adds Steg, "you don't have a chance to do things over."

New tools for middle schools

Soaring into a research career

The years from fifth through eighth grades are when many students get their first formal exposure to earth and atmospheric sciences. A teacher training project at NCAR funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has created modules to help teachers present weather and climate topics to middle school students in ways that are both interactive and engaging. Between 1992 and 1994, NCAR hosted three summer teacher-enhancement institutes under Project LEARN (Laboratory Experience in Atmospheric Research at NCAR).

More than 60 UCAR scientists and staff worked with 40 teachers from California, Colorado, North Carolina, and Texas to increase teacher understanding of atmospheric and related sciences and to provide teachers with first-hand laboratory and field experience. These teachers, in turn, have trained more than 1,300 others who have reached some 130,000 students. Principal LEARN investigators Joyce Gellhorn, the late Patrick Kennedy, and Carol McLaren combined input from the LEARN teachers and scientists at NCAR to create a set of classroom modules. Three modules--focusing on the ozone hole, atmospheric dynamics, and cycles in the earth and atmosphere--were published in 1996.

Project LEARN (Laboratory Experience in Atmospheric Research at NCAR)
and LEARN: Atmospheric Science Explorers

Despite years of effort, atmospheric science has had trouble attracting many researchers from ethnic minorities. In 1996, UCAR launched a new program that could double the number of minority doctorate holders in the discipline. With support from NSF, UCAR established the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program. This five-year program provides education and training, stipends, and graduate scholarships for qualified students working with NCAR and UOP. The emphasis of SOARS is on academic education and training, personal enrichment, and mentoring. It allows students the opportunity to explore different disciplines within the atmospheric sciences, to investigate graduate school options, and to gain long-term support from a respected professional in the student's academic field of study. With several mentors each to provide the guidance and professional access critical to a research career, SOARS students will be engaged in hands-on research, spending summers at UCAR and taking coursework toward their master's or doctoral degree at their home institutions during the rest of the year.

Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS)

Elsewhere in this publication...


For more information, contact Milli Butterworth, butterwo@ucar.edu.
Prepared for the web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Mon Apr 10 13:23:27 MDT 2000