STEM outreach and recruiting heads to next level


The Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M University continues to explore new ways to attract even more highly motivated and capable new students.

One of the innovative approaches is currently being undertaken by the Electronic Systems Engineering Technology (ESET) Program which links current College of Engineering students with junior and senior high school students to work together on challenging and rewarding engineering projects.

Recently, the ESET Program was contacted by Dr. Florence Gold, a member of the NASA High Schools United with NASA for the Creation of Hardware, or HUNCH Program, about a team of Clear Springs High School students. The students, led by Alli Westover, were developing an experiment they wanted to test in microgravity and then fly on the International Space Station (ISS). Westover is a former NASA contractor and her engineering course team has designed and built a highly-compact plant growth chamber.

The chamber is self-contained and may be the basis for the method that deep-space astronauts and mission specialist will use to feed themselves on future missions. All of the mechanical subsystem designs have come from the students taking Westover’s engineering course. 

“They not only design the system, they use our 3D printing capability to iterate through and compare alternative design ideas,” Westover said. “However, the complexity of the experiment is such that it now needs an embedded intelligence system to monitor and record environmental variables, control the lighting and moisture, and to be able to take time-lapse photographs of the inside of the chamber.

“That is when Stacy Hale, the Program Manager and founder of HUNCH introduced us to the students and professors in the ESET Program at Texas A&M University.”

Although there have been a number of individuals involved in the partnership formed over the last three months, two Texas A&M students, Mickie Byrd and Willis Twigge have been fully engaged in helping the Clear Springs team. Their engagement has involved designing the hardware and software necessary to integrate the embedded intelligence subsystem into the high school students’ project. 

The two ESET students have designed and implemented the monitoring and control system so that it can be easily installed into a NanoRacks’ NanoLab enclosure and then, once tested and qualified, be transported to the ISS for a 270-day experiment. 

The hardware design lead, Twigge, has also been chosen to accompany the selected high school team members when they do their microgravity flight testing in early April. 

Microgravity 3“It has been a lot of fun sharing what we have learned in our courses with the high school students,”Twigge said, “but getting an opportunity to fly on the zero-G airplane to test the complete system will be an experience I will never forget.”

Byrd is leading the embedded C software development efforts for the monitoring and control subsystem.

“Being able to use my education to teach and motivate is not only a lot of fun, it allows me to give back to our community,” Byrd said. “By working together, the high school students see how in just a year or two they could attend Texas A&M and pursue their engineering degree.”

Based on the success this partnership has created, Westover and the ESET Program have partnered with the Texas A&M College of Science's Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) and have submitted a joint proposal to develop and offer a “Teach the Teachers” workshop this summer.

The workshop will provide more high school engineering teachers a better understanding of the fundamentals of the electronic hardware and embedded software.

 “With the enhanced understanding of the capabilities developed by Texas A&M for Ms. Westover’s student team and focused course content created by participating high school teachers, we will be able to have more high schools join us in these exciting and educational projects,” Gold said.

Dr. Jay Porter and Dr.Joseph Morgan, professors in the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M, are two of the ESET faculty members involved in a number of innovative outreach and recruiting efforts for Texas A&M's College of Engineering. 

“This is one of the best ways we have found to attract the best and brightest high school students to Texas A&M,” Porter said.

Added Morgan,“By seeing what our students are capable of doing in the area of product and systems development, they begin to visualize themselves as engineers and choosing Texas A&M University to pursue their bachelor’s degrees in a STEM-related field.”

Matt Leonard, who is the Look College of Engineering NASA liaison, added, “The opportunity allows both sets of students to develop hardware for NASA and further strengthen the STEM pipeline all the way to having the ESET students see the possibility of being future engineers that work on NASA’s exploration mission. Having knowledgeable instructors who can equip these capable students in both of these critical areas of education is what the STEM pipeline is all about.” 

The Clear Springs’ Plant Growth Chamber is proposed to be flown on the ISS in April 2014.