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Shaping Careers and Colleges
People in flight suits float in an aircraft while working at a keyboard

Students from Carthage College tested modal analysis in their reduced-gravity flight. Image Credit: NASA

Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., might be a small private college, but its students and faculty are making an impact on the world of research in fluid dynamics. As a result, the experience has had an impact on students' career paths and the college curriculum.

For the fourth consecutive year, Carthage College participated in NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities project under the Microgravity University's Systems Engineering Education Discovery, or SEED, project. They were able to do so with assistance from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium.

Kevin Crosby, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and computer science at Carthage College, has mentored all of the teams for the SEED project. For the 2011 experience, their project was to find a noninvasive way to accurately measure the volume of fluid in a tank in a reduced-gravity environment. While cars and airplanes have fuel gauges that work on Earth because of gravity and buoyancy, once in a reduced-gravity environment the liquid moves freely through the tank, adhering to tank walls and internal structures. As a result, a gauge similar to what is used on Earth would not work. NASA needed to find techniques to use remotely to accurately determine how much fuel was left after a maneuver or launch.

People in flight suits float in an aircraft while observing an experiment

Students flew approximately 30 parabolas during the flight. Image Credit: NASA

Crosby and his team of students researched modal analysis as a possible way to gauge amounts of fuel. Modal analysis is a standard engineering technique currently used to analyze the integrity of structures. It is an acoustic method that causes an object to resonate at different frequencies. The frequencies of the resonations in the tank can help NASA more accurately determine the volume of liquid left in the tank. This method would give NASA real-time data that could be downlinked easily from the spacecraft to Earth. Modal analysis has not been used in this way before, so this new application of a well-known practice is very exciting.

To test their equipment in a reduced-gravity environment, the students and their experiment would fly roughly 60 parabolas in two airplane flights that would last just under two hours each. They would run the modal analysis during the moments they were in reduced gravity, and would record the data and review later. The equipment and test worked very well, and students were soon back on the ground analyzing the data they collected.

As a result of their hard work and innovative ideas, the team was invited to attend the launch of STS-135 space shuttle Atlantis. It was the final space shuttle launch, closing out the end of an era in the U.S. spaceflight program. It would be a historic event in their lives. The students were given tours and access to facilities that enthralled them and ignited their passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The time they spent at NASA's Kennedy Space Center reminded them that they can work in STEM fields and have jobs every bit as exciting and cool as the people they met at NASA.

Six people stand in front of the space shuttle's external tank

As a result of their hard work, Carthage College students were invited to the STS-135 launch of Atlantis. Image Credit: Elizabeth Young/Carthage College

Participating students have written about their experience of SEED and the opportunities it has provided them, "Being involved in the Microgravity SEED project has not only been an incredible experience, but my participation has led me to find my passion for what I want to do in life and has helped me determine my education and career goals." Another student wrote, "My confidence has grown as a result of this program; I know that I can lead a group of people through challenging problems and come out successfully."

Over the last four years, 17 Carthage students have had the opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and engineers through this project. This face-to-face interaction has had an impact on the students. Says Crosby of the experience, "The opportunity to work with a NASA PI (principal investigator) on a project of direct relevance to the space program has had a profound impact on the career choices and aspirations of these students. … These are students who I believe are capable of making meaningful contributions to science and engineering but who often lack confidence in their abilities. Our participation in the SEED program is far-and-away the single most effective way for these students to realize their own abilities and talents."

Over these years, Crosby has noted five students who have changed their career paths. Students who had chosen other fields are currently pursuing advanced degrees in aerospace and astronautical engineering. Another student is pursuing space systems science. Crosby said that other students have gone into education as high school physics teachers. Those educators have used their experience with the SEED project, which includes videos of their flights, to bring excitement for STEM into their classrooms.

Not only students have felt the positive impact of the project. Some professors at Carthage have begun to change the way they teach their physics classes. And as a direct result of the life-changing experiences of SEED, the college developed a new course to address a gap in the students' curriculum. They created a month-long course in systems engineering that teaches the students about time management, technical writing, process scheduling, budget monitoring and teamwork. The course is held during their winter session and is mandatory for any student hoping to participate in the SEED project. Crosby notes that other students who are not part of SEED also have taken the course.

Educators always are looking for ways to excite their students. Educators also look for ways to tie their curriculum into real-life applications. NASA's SEED project gives students the opportunity to leave the campus and enter the real world of NASA. Says Crosby, "We've had several students who might not have found direction for their academic careers become really passionate about human spaceflight and the importance of STEM education as a direct result of their SEED experiences. ... It's really great to see these transformations occur at such a critical time in the lives of young scientists and engineers."

To learn more about the project, please visit the links below.

Related Resources
› Microgravity University
› Systems Engineering Education Discovery
› Carthage College SEED Website
› Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium

Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services