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From Rockets to Careers: It's a STEM Thing
January 15, 2014

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Doug Knight is a college professor and mentor to students attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Mitchell Community College in Statesville, N.C. Knight holds a B.S. in physics from Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. He earned an M.S. in applied physics and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with precision engineering concentration from UNCC. Before teaching at the college level, Knight taught high school for six years.

While he was teaching high school, Knight heard about a rocketry contest and approached his students to gauge their interest. Knight received a warm response, and he ended up becoming the rocketry mentor for teams in both the high school and Mitchell Community College. He was then approached by the UNCC team and became their mentor, too. As a rocketry mentor for seven years now, Knight has found it to be rewarding for both the students and himself. He writes, "Students are doing real engineering on a high-risk project; a task that brings out the best of the students. The process -- from beginning to end -- requires growth, leadership and teamwork to be shown, attributes that are difficult to see in a student in a classroom setting. Being a part of that growth is why I teach. And it's darn fun building, launching and recovering rockets." Knight also is involved in the RockSat C program (sponsored by Colorado Space Grant Consortium) with Mitchell Community College students.

We spoke with four of Knight's students about their experience with NASA's Student Launch (previously known as NASA’s University Student Launch Initiative) activities, and the impact the experience has had on their career choices.

What has been your involvement with rocketry throughout your college career?

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Brian

During my freshman year at Mitchell Community College, I was introduced to rocketry by my physics instructor, Dr. Doug Knight. I designed and constructed my first rocket and was instantly hooked the moment I watched it leave the launch pad. My heart was racing up until I saw the parachute deploy, and as soon as it touched down, I was ready to start designing the second one.

During my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to participate in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative competition for the first time. I took a leadership role on the team and learned a ton. We had a very ambitious payload and did well considering our experience level. Not only were we the first community college to compete in the competition, but we also finished in the top 10.

During my senior year of college, I once again joined a Student Launch project team. Similar to the first time, I took a leadership role, and we did great as a team.

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Josh

While at Mitchell Community College, Dr. Knight gave our physics class an interesting task. We were to design and build a rocket without the use of any commercially available parts, meaning everything had to be built from scratch. The rocket had to reach an altitude of 1,500 feet, AND we had to safely recover the payload -- an egg inside. My rocket accomplished the task, although the parachute did not fully deploy.

My second rocketry project while working with Dr. Knight was much larger. The Projectile Society (physics club) took on two major projects while I was involved. In the fall, we built a pumpkin chunkin' trebuchet, and in the spring we set out to build a high-powered rocket flying on a Loki L930 motor. With Dr. Knight's guidance and the help of a few other people, we built a 10-foot-tall, 12-inch-diameter rocket weighing 50 pounds in my parent's garage.

After completing my studies at Mitchell, I transferred to the University of Kentucky to earn a B.S. in civil engineering. After completing my B.S., I switched to the mining engineering program to work with explosives. I recently completed my master's and am now working toward my Ph.D. My work primarily focuses on explosives for homeland security and defense purposes. I also work with commercial explosives companies in an effort to optimize blasting practices.

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Neil

My sophomore year at Mitchell caused a major change in my life, and it all started when I signed up for a physics class. Dr. Knight taught calculus-based physics at Mitchell and ran a very successful NASA University Student Launch Initiative program. Dr. Knight and his physics class had participated annually at USLI; it was a kind of sophomore class project. It was known around the college as a real capstone project.

Up until this point in my college career, I was just going through the motions, checking off classes and moving through the curriculum with little gusto. This all changed when I became involved with the USLI experience. USLI opened up a whole new world for me.

Our team launched our rocket at Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The spring ejection system worked, the parachute deployed, and the rocket was safely recovered down range in the Atlantic Ocean.

My goal after USLI was to be accepted to a NASA summer internship. I was particularly interested in the Propulsion Academy at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. I talked with Dr. Knight about how to improve my chances of getting accepted. His recommendation was that I should have some practical propulsion experience. That was when he introduced me to the concept of hybrid rocket motors. Unfortunately, I was not selected for the Propulsion Academy, but there were other opportunities waiting in the wings.

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Robby

My rocketry experience began in Dr. Knight’s physics class my sophomore year (2008-09) of school at Mitchell Community College. For a class project, Dr. Knight gave us the options: Build a LEGO mindstorm robot or participate in the Student Launch project competition. With a little nudging from Dr. Knight, the class opted to do SLP. Due to my military background, Dr. Knight suggested that I be a team lead. I accepted and opted to lead the launch vehicle design-and-build team. The 2008-09 Mitchell team was the first community college ever selected to the competition.

After transferring to UNCC, I served as a mentor to the Mitchell Community College SLP level II team in 2010-11. For this team, I advised on the vehicle design. I also began work with Dr. Knight, outside of the classroom, on the design assembly and launches of several high-altitude balloons with the end goal of developing a high-altitude launch platform for a rocket. During this process, we also began development of our own high-mass fraction solid-fuel rocket motors. We are still working with this project as time allows.

The spring before my senior year, my team was trying to decide how we wanted to approach our senior design project. After looking at the project requirements, we decided to bring SLP into the program. Over the summer of 2011, we wrote a project proposal that was accepted by the senior design board.

Along with the founding of the SLP team, we started an official student organization, the 49erRocketry Club, to get both underclassmen and non-engineering majors involved in the program. Our first roll call in November 2011 had 12 students listed, including the nine SLP team members. Roll call at the 49erRocketry meeting on May 22, 2013, was 40+.

Since graduation, I served as a mentor for the 2012-13 team and am currently a mentor for the 2013-14 team.

What are you currently doing? How are you involved in rocketry or other related disciplines?

Brian

I have accepted a position at Nexjen Systems as a project engineer. We are a system integrator working for a large variety of industries including aerospace. I also work with the 49er Rocketry and Projectile Society, which is the rocketry student organization at UNCC.

Josh

I was not a member of the SLP Team. However, I was the first of Dr. Knight’s students to get an internship with NASA … I spent the summers of 2008 and 2009 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as part of the NASA Robotics Academy. Both summers I had the opportunity to work in the Flight Robotics Lab working with the Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking Group. My first summer, I was a research assistant, and the second summer I moved up to a team lead. Both summers were amazing experiences. I had the opportunity to see and do things that would not have been possible otherwise. I also made some lifelong friends during the process.

Neil

I have graduated with high honors from Mitchell Community College with an Associate in Science, pre-engineering. Currently I am an electrical engineering rising senior at UNCC. I have also been accepted as an "early entry" graduate student starting next semester.

I think the biggest news is that in 2011 I applied for and was awarded the Department of Defense SMART (Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation) scholarship. I am now working toward a career as a civilian electrical engineer in the Air Force. A requirement of the SMART program is summer internships at my Air Force sponsoring facility … I am currently in the middle of my second and last internship at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. I will transition to full-time employment at Tinker as soon as I graduate with my B.S. degree. Right now, I’m working on the Air Force’s Pacer Comet 4 jet-engine test cell upgrade project. Once I graduate from my bachelor’s program at UNCC and get settled in at Tinker, I hope to continue my education and earn a graduate degree in electrical engineering at Oklahoma State University.

Robby

I am currently working at a company that specializes in modeling and simulation. We mainly do work in three areas: ballistic missile defense, tactical vehicle armor and automotive aerodynamic analysis. While these are the three fields we deal with the most, we have also had Small Business Innovation Research proposals accepted for a variety of things. This year, I have played a part in a shipboard munitions armor package, a collapsible ballistic shield project, and the THAAD missile slow cook-off project, just to name a few. Through rocketry and the SLP program, I learned how to use Finite Element Analysis and Computational Fluid Dynamics in real applications. The experience I gained from SLP directly transfers to the work I am doing now.

Have you participated in other NASA opportunities? If so, describe your experience(s).

Brian

During college, and in part thanks to SLP, I was awarded a scholarship through NASA's Aeronautics Scholarship Program. This included an internship at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, where I worked within the CE18 Test Cell, which researches radial flow through a centrifugal compressor. It was a great opportunity, and I learned about instrumentation.

Neil

At the same time I was involved with USLI, I also had the opportunity to participate in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars program. NCAS was a fantastic engineering challenge that earned me a spot at the NCAS three-day engineering competition at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

When our USLI project wrapped up, I was off to my next NASA adventure at the Lunar and Planetary Science Academy at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. This was the ultimate summer internship program. Joshua Mann, a fellow LPSA intern, and I worked with the principal investigator developing a nontactile method of dust removal in a vacuum. Our primary focus was the removal of accumulated dust from mirrored surfaces using an electron gun. We had the opportunity to test this method on mirror samples from the James Webb Space Telescope. An exciting aspect of LPSA was a geological field trip to the Channeled Scablands of Washington State and Idaho. Joshua and I operated and maintained video equipment on a pair of small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. We recorded overhead footage of basalt columns for latter analysis.

http://www.nasa.gov/topics/solarsystem/features/mars-honeycomb.html

Even though my future day job is with the United States Air Force, my involvement with NASA continues to this day. In 2012, I was named a NASA Student Ambassador. This is a prestigious honor for me because I believe what NASA is accomplishing through their educational programs is extremely important for the future of this country. I know that NASA has been instrumental in shaping my future. I have made it my personal mission to encourage those around me to succeed and to promote NASA wherever and whenever possible.

On the Web:

NASA Student Launch
Student Launch on Facebook

Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services

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Doug Knight
Doug Knight
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Brian Couch
Brian Couch
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Josh Calnan
Josh Calnan
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Neil Taylor
Neil Taylor
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Robby Stegall
Robby Stegall
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Page Last Updated: January 15th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator