Imagine being part of a winning team when you've never worked with your teammates face-to-face. That was the reality for members of some "virtual" teams that recently came out on top in two NASA-sponsored competitions. The teams were part of NASA's Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience project. Known simply as INSPIRE, the agency-wide project managed from Kennedy Space Center in Florida is designed to encourage students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Image above: Team FireFly! members (from left) Francisco Sanchez, Nicholas LoBue and Hannah Mohr visit NASA's Johnson Space Center to present their winning design. The fourth team member, Smridhi Mahajan, was not present. Image credit: NASA/JSC › View larger image
The Online Learning Community is the centerpiece of the INSPIRE project. It gives students from across the nation the opportunity to interact with their peers, NASA experts, and education specialists 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A number of virtual teams formed under the INSPIRE project entered both the recent Space Habitat Innovation Challenge and the RealWorld-InWorld Engineering Design Challenge, with two of them prevailing to take top honors. "We're impressed by the fact each INSPIRE team was composed of students from across the country who were able to connect in a virtual environment and compete against student teams from traditional classroom settings," said Steven H. Chance, INSPIRE's national project manager. "Not only did our teams compete, they took first place. This tells us we're providing students a forum to develop the skills required, not only by NASA, but in the global economy as well." The Space Habitat Innovation Challenge was sponsored by NASA's National Space Grant Consortium through Oklahoma State University's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and INSPIRE. The competition was open to teams of three to six high school students from Oklahoma as well as those enrolled in INSPIRE's Online Learning Community. The challenge was to design the next generation of space habitat. The teams formed through INSPIRE were created and worked together online during the competition. A total of 13 teams answered the call, and all but one were INSPIRE virtual teams. Three teams were chosen as finalists to present their designs to students and faculty from Oklahoma State University's Xhab college team. All three teams chosen as finalists were from the INSPIRE project. In the end, Team FireFly! - made up of students Hannah Mohr from Grant, Ala., Smridhi Mahajan from San Antonio, Texas, Nicholas LoBue from Beaverton, Ore. and Francisco Sanchez from Mountain View, Calif. - took top honors. The other two finalists were Team Nautae Stellarum and Team Nerd 5.
Image above: Team FireFly! took top prize in the Space Habitat Innovation Challenge with this winning design. Image credit: NASA/Team FireFly! › View larger image
Team FireFly! created a virtual model of their cylindrical design that would allow future astronauts to move about through several different floors, with docking ports for exploration vehicles. The team was given the chance to present their design to the Xhab scientists and engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "My trip to Johnson Space Center was amazing. After a day of walking around the center and getting the opportunity to ask scientists and engineers about their projects, I learned about many new things that might have affected my work on the Xhab challenge, researching energy sources and materials for life support," said LoBue following his team's visit to Houston, adding, "It was just nice to finally meet with my group and be able to have a face-to-face conversation." In another NASA-sponsored competition, the latest RealWord-InWorld NASA Engineering Design Challenge, one of two winning teams in the two-part competition was also an INSPIRE virtual team. The competition began in the RealWorld phase where students in grades 7-12 were challenged to use the engineering design process and professional engineering software to solve a problem related to either the James Webb Space Telescope or Robonaut 2, also known as R2. More than 400 middle and high school students from across the nation were involved in the RealWorld stage of the competition. Throughout both the RealWorld and InWorld phases, Webb Telescope and R2 researchers met with students online for scheduled question-and-answer sessions.
Image above: The Kepler team took first place in the RealWorld-InWorld competition by designing this heat shield for the James Webb Space Telescope Image credit: NASA/Team Kepler › View larger image
Twenty teams from the RealWorld entries were selected to be mentored by college engineering students in a virtual world setting during the InWorld portion of the competition. Mentors represented Ohio State, North Carolina State, Virginia Commonwealth University, Keller University, University of Chattanooga, Rice University, Purdue University, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin, University of Tennessee Space Institute, and Texas A&M. Once the field was narrowed to six teams, their presentations were judged during 30-minute tours and interviews with educators and engineers before the winners for each of the two challenges were chosen. INSPIRE produced the winning virtual team for the Webb Telescope challenge of the competition. The Kepler team had the winning design for a shield to keep the telescope cold enough to detect faint infrared light form distant sources such as remote galaxies and extrasolar planets. The team was made up of Ryan Chew from Foster City, Calif., Lauren Shum from Long Island, N.Y. and Mohr who was also a member of the winning Space Habitat competition team. Their mentor was Ben Klamm, a graduate student of aerospace engineering at the University of Tennessee Space Institute. "We're proud of the accomplishments made by all our students," said Chance. "They're very smart, extremely talented, and want to prepare for their future as part of NASA's exciting future. It's in NASA's DNA to inspire and engage students in our ongoing and future aeronautical research and space exploration missions."