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Episode 39: Rachel Wittenberg
: Rachel Wittenberg, NASA education associate
(0:19) Interview with Rachel Wittenberg. University of California, Berkeley, freshman Rachel Wittenberg investigates technologies affecting soccer balls, home ventilation and photography while working as a NASA education associate.
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: This is NASA Student Opportunities -- a podcast connecting high school and college students with learning opportunities inside America's space agency.
Episode 39. Nov. 14, 2007. I'm Deana Nunley.
NASA's Education Associates project offers college and university students and faculty the opportunity to experience science and technology in the unique environment of NASA. It's an opportunity to apply classroom theory to real-world problems -- making science relevant, exciting and fun. Internships run from two to 12 months and can start and stop at any time.
The Education Associates project is currently limited to postsecondary students, but our guest today had a unique opportunity to participate during the summer before her senior year in high school. Rachel Wittenberg is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. She's completed a couple of terms as an education associate at Ames Research Center in the Fluid Mechanics Lab during the last two summers.
Did the summer that you spent with the Education Associates impact your senior year in high school and what you decided to do once you started college?
: Absolutely, because I knew that I wanted to do something related to space as a career, but I wasn't sure what would be the best thing to study in college. Aerospace engineering sounded like a really good fit, but it's also a very vague term. When you say that you're an engineer, it's confusing as to what you would do on a day-to-day basis. So, being able to spend a couple of weeks on an actual NASA base working with real aerospace engineers, and doing engineering and learning about what they do with their time, was really helpful for me in deciding what I wanted to major in.
It was useful for me to see if I were in aerospace engineering, it's not necessarily one specific thing that I would be doing. I could work with buildings more, or ships more, or I could be a sports ball aerodynamicist. There are a lot of different subsections of that. Also, having people help me figure out possible career paths and different opportunities was very useful.
: What projects have you been involved with as an education associate?
: My favorite projects were last year's because I was working a lot with one of the smaller wind tunnels in the building. Its maximum speed is about 50 mph, so it's really good for things like soccer balls, buildings and things that don't have air traveling over them at very, very high speeds.
So, what I did was build a mount for that wind tunnel that would allow someone to put soccer balls, RC (radio-controlled) planes, or sailboats in the test section, because we didn't really have an apparatus to do that. So I was able to put an RC plane in the wind tunnel and do some work with that.
I also actually was able to look at the 2006 Teamgeist World Cup soccer ball. Because it has different stitching patterns than a regular soccer ball, I wanted to look at the airflow over that. That was actually really interesting because we get a lot of tour groups in our building, and many of them think of NASA as only working with planes or space technology. It was really useful to have something that a lot of people can relate to, so that they can see that aerodynamics is involved in aspects of our daily lives that a lot of people don't typically think about.
: What are some of those applications of the research that you're involved with?
: The applications for the soccer ball were more just an interest project. Not a lot of researchers had really been looking at the different airflow over the new soccer ball, even though a lot of goalies were complaining about an unpredictable flight path.
But a project that I did during the school year, and a little bit this summer, was a lot more useful to other people. It was working with Habitat for Humanity homes in Central America, because many of the homes there have to be rebuilt after natural disasters. They only can use available resources, so they don't have very expensive or sophisticated ventilation systems. When someone is having a cooking fire inside the home, all of the soot from that doesn't get vented out very cleanly, so it's really affecting people's lung health.
I was looking at a configuration for vents in the home to see -- if you're rebuilding your home -- where could you put openings in it that would help increase the natural circulation. That was really cool, because we're going to try and send that information to some people, so that when they're working in Central America, they know how to build better houses that won't cost any more time or money than older versions, but that would increase cleaner air that people would be breathing. So that's a great application for us, because we like to do projects that benefit people in our society and in other societies, as opposed to strictly only doing new technology kind of things, because part of the NASA mission, as you probably know, is to not only look toward the future, but also to improve our own environment on Earth. So, that was a really useful project for us to do.
: Did you work on that this summer as well, or did you just work on that back in 2006?
: That was my senior project through my English class at high school. I came down to Ames every couple of weeks to work on it throughout the school year. So, by the time the school year finished, I had been working on it for a few months, and I didn't really want to do anymore work with it. But one of the other interns in our building wanted to continue with it, so she's been doing a little bit more research on that during the summer.
: And what have you done during the summer of 2007?
: This summer I did not have one main project, but I've been kind of going around doing a lot of smaller things that needed to get done.
For example, we have a graphic design group in the building that has a really cool camera mount that they use to take panoramas with, and they wanted to know up to what wind speeds could they use the camera in before the pictures began to get blurry or before any of the mechanisms on the mount would start to bend, or things like that. So we put the mount in the wind tunnel and took panoramas of it with no cameras, and then with a small camera, and then with a bigger camera, and then with a big camera and a really big lens to see how the mount would function under high wind speeds. That was usually up to them [the graphics design group], because sometimes they're in areas where they don't have very nice conditions for taking panoramas, and they wanted to know how that would affect their equipment.
That was also really fun, because we got to generate atmospheric boundary layers for that test, which is basically the area of the air that we live in. It's a couple hundred feet high on Earth. The atmosphere boundary layer is when the air is flat against the surface. The wind speed needs to be zero. So the air slows down and gets more turbulent as it gets closer to the surface of an object. So, obviously, the area where they would be standing to take their panoramas would be in the boundary layer, and they wouldn't have the perfectly smooth, straight airflow that we have in wind tunnels. So we'd had to put spikes in the test section to generate the turbulent air that they would be working in.
: You were also involved with Girl Scouts with your wind tunnel projects. Is that correct?
: Yes. We love the Girl Scouts. They come every year. They're a great group of kids. They're usually here for about a week or two all over the base doing different kinds of projects. They typically spend about a week with us, on and off.
What we do is have a model of the Wright Flyer that we hook up to one of the wind tunnels. And we attach it to strain gauges, and we're able to see how much lift and drag there is in pounds.
That's really cool for us, because it's a really hands-on project. The girls get to go and measure wind speed, measure the lift and the drag, and change the angle for the wing that we have mounted to the mount. It's fun because we usually have a couple of groups of girls at a time and we rotate through them. So all of them get to try all the different projects, and we get to spend all day working with them, running tests. And then later we go through, analyze the results that we got, and write up a report. At the end of the week, we all meet back together to discuss what happened. That's cool, because I guess a lot of girls have trouble getting into science and technical fields, so it's really fun to be able to meet them all.
Also, one of the Girl Scouts from this year really was very interested in what we were doing and came back, after her group left, a few days later to spend some time with us and help us out for a couple of days in our office. She was really helpful, and she's going to try to come back -- I think during the school year, maybe next summer -- as an intern. That was really cool, because she's a really awesome kid, and now we have this wonderful new intern. So, that worked out very well.
: Do you think you'll continue long-term to pursue the research you've started as an education associate?
: Absolutely. This is such an interesting field, and there are so many different career paths that you can take from having this sort of a background. What I like about the building that I'm in, in particular, is that we do a lot of work with other people around the center. We get to see a lot of different projects and different things that we can do, so it's not necessarily only one type of work. We really get a big breadth of experience here.
: What are your plans for the future, Rachel?
: Well, I've got a couple years of college ahead of me. I'm probably going to be doing some graduate work after I finish my undergrad. I'm hoping to continue working with NASA in the future. So I'd like to get more flying time in as well, but I definitely want to keep working with NASA.
: Rachel Wittenberg says she plans to major in astrophysics. And along the way, she's working toward a private pilot's license. If you're interested in more information about becoming an education associate, check out the link in this week's show notes. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast
, and click on the NASA Student Opportunities podcast.
What do you think is NASA’s greatest exploration achievement in the past 50 years and why? That is the question NASA is asking students for the Second Annual 21st Century Explorer Podcast Competition. Students will create an audio recording or video -- running one minute or less -- with their answer to the question.
The contest is open to U.S. citizens, ages 11 to 18. Podcasts will be judged on content, creativity, execution, clarity and overall impression. The 15 finalists in each format (audio and video) and each age category (ages 11-14 and ages 15-18) will be displayed on the contest Web site Feb. 14-28, 2008. During that time, the public will vote for and select a “People’s Choice” winner. In addition, first, second and third place prizes will be awarded. Winners will be announced on the Web site Feb. 28, 2008.
The podcast competition is an Education and Public Outreach project designed to inspire and motivate the next generation of explorers. It's sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in collaboration with NASA.
Entries are being accepted now through Jan. 4, 2008, or when the first 1,000 entries in each category are received. Format and file size requirements, as well as tips for creating audio and video podcasts, are available on the competition Web site.
For more information about the 21st Century Explorer Podcast Competition, check out this week’s show notes. Go to www.nasa.gov/podcast
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