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Challenge brings opportunity for NASA HUNCH students to work with Texas Aggies


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December 11, 2013

Across the country, a number of high school students are working daily to design and manufacture training and flight-certified hardware and soft goods for NASA astronauts. These talented students are a part of a program called High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH). Today, high school teams from the HUNCH Extreme Science Program are working with the Electronic Systems Engineering Technology (ESET) program students at Texas A&M University to help accomplish their engineering and research goals for the International Space Station.
 
HUNCH, started by Johnson Space Center’s HUNCH Project Manager Stacy Hale in 2003, provides high school students with the opportunity to fabricate real-world products for NASA as they apply science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills, as well as learn to work and think creatively in teams.
 
The relationship with Texas A&M first began in spring 2013, when students from Clear Springs High School in League City, Texas, were working to redesign their plant growth chamber for flight testing on the Zero-G plane. After refining their model smaller and smaller each time, they approached a challenge in being able to monitor and control their experiment.  
 
“We learned about Clear Springs’ Extreme Science project and their challenge of not having microcontroller programming and monitoring for their experiment, so our students stepped up to the plate and said they could help to fix their problem,” said Dr. Joseph Morgan, ESET program director at Texas A&M University. “That’s when we started the NASA STEM to Space (S2S) project, and their problem became our opportunity to help.”
 
S2S funds ESET program students at Texas A&M and allows them to support high school student teams in taking their experiments to test on the Zero-G flight and, eventually, to the International Space Station. Using their skills sets of intelligent data acquisition and control board design, two ESET students developed a NanoRacks Embedded System Integration (NESI) board, a microcontroller-based hardware and associated software that allows the Extreme Science high school teams to monitor and control their experiments in microgravity.
 
HUNCH Extreme Science students at Clear Springs High School and an Aggie NESI board developer recently tested the NESI prototype in a microgravity environment. The zero-gravity flight qualified them to send their experiment to the space station on Space X’s Dragon in June 2014.
 
After the test flight, Hale acquired funding for the Aggies to build 100 NESI boards for all of the HUNCH teams. In just two months, ESET was able to not only build and ship two boards to each high school team, but also provide weekly support to the teams as mentors—helping to accomplish both A&M’s and HUNCH’s goals to impact high school students and revitalize interest and leadership in engineering.
 
“That’s where the project really has value,” said Dr. Florence Gold, the Extreme Science Experiment project coordinator for the HUNCH Program Gold. “These high school students really look up to their college mentors. They give them motivation to pursue STEM careers.”
 
“We started this as a recruiting and outreach effort to help high school students by showing them the things they can do with engineering and encouraging them to consider pursuing engineering at A&M,” Morgan said. “Pairing college students with high school students has really shown to raise their enthusiasm. It makes a significant difference in how the student learns. They are not only getting information about their projects, but about what it’s like to go to college and pursue a degree in engineering.”
 
To communicate with one another, the Extreme Science high school students and Aggies use many different tools to accomplish a successful mentorship relationship. The NESI Wiki page provides the high school students with an opportunity to share their project ideas, findings and questions while allowing the university students to comment and provide assistance with their experiments. The students also use Zoom, video conferencing software similar to Skype, as well as traditional email.
 
“Reaching out to the community and working with high school students is of immense value. I had no idea what an engineer was when I was in high school. I heard many different things that made me unsure of the career,” said Dakotah Karrer, sophomore A&M engineering student. “Working with students from across the country has really been an eye opening experience for both the college students and the high school students. They are getting to learn what engineering is all about and we are learning how to teach future engineers.” 
 
The Extreme Science program is one of four programs that were developed from the NASA HUNCH program. Others include Build to Print, which allows high school students to create training soft goods; Design and Prototyping, where students work to redesign various items requested by the astronauts; and Implementation, a website where students create videos to educate middle and elementary school students on the International Space Station.
 
“These high school students aren’t just learning STEM, but they are also learning how to work as a team,” Gold said. “This experience will help them tremendously in their college and professional career. With the Extreme Science program, the students have to write test equipment data packages, design their experiments and present their research—applying almost all of the subjects that they learn in school every day.”
 
The success of the Extreme Science HUNCH program has not only made an impact on local Houston schools, but 13 other schools around the country—with the goal to one day have schools from all ten NASA center regions.
 
“We now have schools participating in three different time zones,” Gold said. “We are adding diversity in location and gender; helping NASA reach places they have not yet been able to. Putting Dr. Morgan’s students at A&M together with our high school students has resulted positively, and we hope to see an increase in more students around the country pursuing engineering and other STEM studies, as well as having more of our student projects flying to the International Space Station.”
 
For more information on the ESET program and HUNCH Extreme Science partnership, click here.
To learn more about NASA HUNCH, visit: http://www.nasahunch.com/
 
Ashlé Harris
NASA Johnson Space Center
HUNCH Extreme Science program students from Billings Central Catholic High School in Billings, Mont., complete a successful test flight experiment this past year aboard the Zero-G plane. Their experiment involving algae growth is also flying to the International Space Station in June 2014.
HUNCH Extreme Science program students from Billings Central Catholic High School in Billings, Mont., complete a successful test flight experiment this past year aboard the Zero-G plane. Their experiment involving algae growth is also flying to the International Space Station in June 2014.
Clear Spring High School completes a successful test flight aboard the Zero-G plane. Their modified plan growth chamber is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station in June 2014.
Clear Spring High School completes a successful test flight aboard the Zero-G plane. Their modified plan growth chamber is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station in June 2014.
Texas A&M University students designed and built the NanoRacks Embedded System Integration (NESI) Board that allows HUNCH Extreme Science program students to monitor and control their experiments from the space station.
Texas A&M University students designed and built the NanoRacks Embedded System Integration (NESI) Board that allows HUNCH Extreme Science program students to monitor and control their experiments from the space station.