From the Field to the Workforce
Many college students face a common conundrum: They need to get a job, but employers want new hires that have practical experience. What if there were a way to participate in a year-long, NASA-sponsored competition that gave students needed practical experience, the type of experience that makes top aerospace companies and others take notice?
That is what's happening with students who participate in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative, or USLI. NASA's USLI project is a competition that challenges university-level students to design, build and launch a reusable rocket with a scientific or engineering payload; the rocket must fly one mile above ground.
The team from Vanderbilt University is an excellent example of USLI participants. The 2012 competition was the sixth time Vanderbilt's team had entered the competition. Amrutur Anilkumar, professor of mechanical engineering and the faculty advisor for the team, says he has seen the benefit of the project to the students. The competition has grown in popularity through the publicity generated; participating in USLI requires extremely dedicated students who can combine both their regular school work and the intense, hands-on work required by the project. In the end, students emerge with strong capabilities that make potential employers sit up and take notice.
For the 2012 competition, the Vanderbilt team wanted to prove that inexpensive rocket flight can serve as an experimental platform for testing the design and performance of a ramjet engine. Professor Anilkumar describes the Vanderbilt payload and rocket:
The Vanderbilt design theme is threefold: (i) the payload has to be novel; (ii) the payload has to be handmade; and (iii) rocket flight testing should be an extension of ground-based testing ... The objective of the Vanderbilt USLI-12 team was to prove that inexpensive rocket flight can serve as an experimental platform for testing the design and performance of a ramjet engine. A ramjet engine is an air-breathing jet engine that generates thrust only at high air intake speeds. A pair of handmade ramjet engines was externally mounted to the aft-most section of the flight rocket. They are identical except that one of the engines is not ignited. The active ramjet experiences timely and sustained combustion of atomized fuel, which adds energy to the air flowing through it. This hot air is forced to expand through a nozzle in which it accelerates and produces thrust. The engine is instrumented with strain and temperature sensors to measure thrust and analyze its performance. The rocket is built around the needs of the payload. Fuel injection, fuel delivery, and flame sustenance are some of the unique challenges in a 15-second rocket flight.
Zach Smith, a mechanical engineering and mathematics student at Vanderbilt University, was one of the senior members of the team. Zach participated in the high school level competition, NASA's Student Launch Initiative. When he got to Vanderbilt, Anilkumar invited Zach to sit in on the Aerospace Club USLI team. As a freshman, Zach was at the table with senior mechanical and electrical engineers. Ignored for most of the meeting, Zach felt fairly intimidated until finally someone asked him why he was at the meeting. When Zach explained that he'd participated in the high school segment of the competition, and that he had actual rocketry experience, the senior members were impressed to have someone with some level of field experience on the team. Even though these seniors had more academic experience, they didn’t have the launch experience that Zach had. It's one thing to talk about rockets and trajectory and payloads; it's another thing to build, launch and retrieve one. And even though Zach's experience was at the high school level, it was enough to escalate his value to the team.
That first year in college, Zach worked on the rocket itself while the senior members focused on the design and payload. Says Zach of the experience, "Competing at the college level is vastly different than the high school version of the competition, and it requires much more vigorous testing and a level of technical reporting that was new to me. However, that year allowed me to familiarize myself with the workings of the club, the workspace and tools available, as well as better understand the USLI organization and interactions with the NASA officials."
Anilkumar knows the importance of such a project to young students and how working through the process provides them with much needed real-world experience. While many students might think that the project is handed to them ready-to-go, the reality is that the team has to start at the very beginning and must prove to NASA evaluators that the project the students are recommending can actually be done -- and be done effectively. Once approved, the process from project on paper to project in reality is a major endeavor.
With each consecutive year's competition, Vanderbilt student Zach gained more experience, and by the time he was a senior, he was president of the Aerospace Club and had a large say in all of the design and construction work, including the scientific payload. As he says, "I went from being asked to conduct simple tasks assisting senior members, to developing the roles of each team member, providing guidance and experience, and leading the design process." It's this type of experience that makes companies take notice. Zach wrote, "I recently spoke with a friend from Vanderbilt who now works as an aerospace design engineer, and it was very interesting to see that the design and review process he must go through (at work) is nearly identical to what the USLI program fosters."
It's not just the designing and building of the rocket that are important. Students participating in such a group project learn other skills that are important to companies who are hiring. Learning how to work in a team, setting goals, working with different leadership styles, understanding the importance of communication, learning different reporting methods, and keeping a tight budget -- all of these things are of value to companies hiring new graduates. Participating in a group effort like NASA's University Student Launch Initiative gives students experience in all of these areas. As Zach reiterates, "The USLI program is a great opportunity to gain practical experience and knowledge. Such experience is an excellent supplement to the knowledge gained in the classroom."
Other students participating in the project have realized the value to their academic and career goals as well. Mechanical engineering student Taylor Stevenson says, "NASA USLI provides the perfect avenue for practical development as an engineer. It has provided the inspiration and support that's critical to the learning process." Christopher Lioi, another mechanical engineering student at Vanderbilt, writes, "We don't often have the opportunity to get out and do a hands-on experiment like the rocket project. The experience prepared me for the real world through reality test failures. We learned a lot from recovering from our mistakes."
Anilkumar has seen the benefits of the USLI project again and again. He writes, "Recently, I met an alumnus of our program at a graduate school he is attending. He was beaming that he had been offered a job at an aerospace company just that week, and all they talked about in the interview was his USLI challenges and experiences." Anilkumar says, "It is not just aerospace companies that are interested in this experience. Two guys on the current team are joining oil exploration companies, and they will tell you that their USLI field experience was a major selling point." Anilkumar knows that companies are looking for students who can not only dream big, but can take a challenge through its life cycle from paper to product. Students who participate in the USLI project have exactly that experience, and they bring valued experience to their employers.
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Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services