Aggie engineers, NASA help high school student projects fly to the ISS

Photo of NESI team

Texas A&M University engineering students are working with the NASA High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) Program to help high school student teams take their experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). 

The NASA STEM To Space (S2S) project is helping the Aggies from the Electronic Systems Engineering Technology (ESET) Program to provide high school students with embedded hardware and software for their experiments. The project is funded by Johnson Space Center’s Research Integration Office.

Photo of the Texas A&M NESI team working

The Aggies will design, develop and deliver embedded-intelligence-based hardware and software for use by NASA HUNCH high school

student teams participating in the Extreme Science Experiment Program. These experiments fly on the Zero G plane and are proposed to fly on the ISS. Known as the NESI (NanoRacks Embedded System Integration) Board, the new microcontroller-based hardware and associated software will be used in 13 high school HUNCH experiments across the nation. 

The NASA HUNCH Program was started in 2003 by NASA’s Stacy Hale with the aim to build cost-effective hardware for astronaut-training facilities at Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center. Since then high school and middle school students around the nation have built both training and flight-certified hardware and soft goods for NASA. 

“The unique partnership with ESET involves HUNCH students who are developing experiments for space,” Hale said. “The high school students and their experiments will first fly on the zero gravity plane. If the results from this microgravity flight are successful, the experiment will be flown on the ISS. The NESI Board allows the experiments to operate autonomously while aboard the ISS.

“NASA HUNCHPhoto of NESI board is excited to be working with the ESET faculty and students in inspiring the next generation of scientists.”

ESET seniors Mickie Byrd and Willis Twigge have developed the new, small-form factor NESI Board that can be easily installed into a NanoRacks’ 4”x4”x4” cube to monitor and control the experiments created by high school students. The NESI Board has been designed to conserve space within the cube and to operate from a single USB port. The system includes color imaging, gas sensing, data recording, and a highly reconfigurable platform to interface a wide range of additional sensors and actuators. 

Dakota Karrer, an ESET junior, is now leading the team of ESET students working on the S2S project. The ESET students have started a NESI wiki page at

The NESI prototype was recently tested in a microgravity environment by HUNCH students in Allison Westover’s Engineering Design and Development class at Clear Springs High School. The HUNCH team’s Zero Gravity flight qualified them to send their experiment to the ISS.   

Westover said, “Having the Texas A&M ESET students involved with my high school team provided a unique STEM experiential learning opportunity for all the students. With their help, my team’s experiment passed its zero gravity testing requirements and is now scheduled to be flown on the ISS in June 2014.” 

NanoRacks is the company responsible for the delivery and retrieval of the HUNCH Extreme Science experiments to and from the ISS. 

Michael Johnson, CTO at NanoRacks, said, “The custom designs that the ESET students have created is a value-add capability for NanoRacks and the new NESI wiki will be an excellent learning environment to support the high school HUNCH teams in developing their monitoring and control capabilities for their NanoLab experiments. We included the NESI Board in our latest round of space-qualification testing of NanoRacks’ hardware, and it passed with flying colors.” 

Photo of HUNCH projectThe second phase of this project has just kicked off and will require the ESET Product Innovation Cellar (PIC) to produce 100 of the new systems and support their implementation by high school teams. 

Dr. Jay Porter, ESET Program director, said, “When we built the PIC, we were hopeful that organizations like NASA would see the value in leveraging this unique resource to provide experiential learning opportunities for our students while adding value to the STEM community. Providing high school students with the opportunity to learn the basics of electronic circuits and embedded C programming through a challenging HUNCH project is an integral part of our outreach strategy to bring more high-caliber freshman to Texas A&M and the Dwight Look College of Engineering.”

In addition to the engineering design and development efforts, undergraduate students from the ESET program will also form a cadre of mentors to the high school teams. An online development community in the form of a wiki is being established to provide detailed information sharing. The high school teams participating in the HUNCH projects will also be able to post their designs and share lessons learned on the wiki environment. 

 “My students are getting excited about being able to use the NESI Board to monitor and control their experiments while in space,” said Dr. Florence Gold, the Extreme Science Experiment project coordinator for the NASA HUNCH Program. “With the interaction and support from the Texas A&M ESET undergraduate students it is amazing what the high school students can do in implementing complex experiments that will be conducted in the near zero gravity  environment of the zero gravity plane and the ISS. Working with Texas A&M has added a higher level of professionalism to the HUNCH Extreme Science program.  Everyone is appreciative of being able to work with ESET students and faculty at Texas A&M University.” 

The 2013-2014 Extreme Science Experiment Program now includes 13 different high school teams spanning three different time zones, including:

  • Jackson Hole High School, Jackson, Wyo.
  • Overland High School, Aurora, Colo.
  • Clear Creek High School, League City, Texas
  • Clear Spring High School, League City, Texas
  • Lakewood High School, Lakewood, Colo.
  • Warren Tech Career Center, Lakewood, Colo.
  • Tri-County Regional Vocational Technical High School, Franklin, Ma.
  • North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, Durham, N.C.
  • Eaglecrest High School, Centennial, Colo.
  • Council Rock High School South, Holland, Penn.
  • East Troy High School, East Troy, Wis.
  • Fairport High School, Fairport, N.Y.
  • New Horizons Governor’s School of Science & Technology, Hampton, Va.

“The NESI Board is saving room, reducing power consumption, and making it easier to instrument scientific experiments that can be performed on the ISS,” says Dr. Andrew Wildenberg, a computer science professor at Rocky Mountain College and the scientist working with the Billings Montana Algal Growth and Remediation team. “The board’s versatility and ability to be reconfigured will accommodate a wide range of different experiments being considered by the high school teams across the country. The ESET Program has also collaborated extensively with NanoRacks. This interaction should result in a higher degree of uplink and downlink data transfer while on the ISS.”

Dr. Joseph Morgan, principal investigator for the new NASA-funded project, said, “Engaging bright young men and women in support of their NASA HUNCH projects is an excellent way to identify and cultivate relationships that will add significantly to our recruiting of women and minorities to the college of engineering. We have found in other projects that high school students interact and learn better when working directly with our undergraduate students, and this project will definitely allow us to maximize that interaction.” 

The HUNCH Extreme Science teams will be doing system-level testing using the zero gravity airplane in April 2014 and when qualified are hopeful to be onboard the ISS. Two of last year’s HUNCH teams are already scheduled to go to the ISS in June of 2014. 

For more information about the Texas A&M ESET program please contact Dr. Joseph Morgan at For more information about the NASA HUNCH program please visit or contact Stacy.L.Hale@NASA.Gov. For more information about the NASA HUNCH Extreme Science program please contact Florence.V.Gold@NASA.Gov.