- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - Data-collecting tools designed and built by University of Hawaii community college students and housed in an aluminum cube smaller than a shoe box will soon be launched into space as part of a NASA-funded rocket flight.

The nondescript cube houses electronics the students have designed to collect and analyze information about the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Friday.

“It will measure the sun’s ultraviolet light above the Earth’s atmosphere. We want to know the total amount of ultraviolet light there is and eventually how it fluctuates over time because that will have an influence on the Earth’s atmosphere and eventually on climate,” said project manager Joe Ciotti, a professor of physics, astronomy and math at Windward Community College.

The project is an example of the university’s efforts to foster student interest in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through project-based learning.

Sixteen students from Honolulu, Windward, Kapiolani and Kauai community colleges have been collaborating on the project — dubbed Project Imua — since the fall, when NASA awarded the campuses a two-year $500,000 grant as part of its Space Grant Competitive Opportunity for Partnerships with Community Colleges and Technical Schools.

Ciotti said the grant wasn’t project-specific, but instead aimed at exposing students to hands-on STEM experiences in aerospace engineering through scholarships.

Another objective, he said, was to test out a model for having a consortium of community colleges design and test small experiment packages for launch into space, or payloads, for possible collaboration with UH-Manoa’s Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory. The research facility partners with the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

The Project Imua unit will be placed inside a rocket measuring four stories high that will be launched in August from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The project will be sent approximately 100 miles up into space before being deployed with four other payloads designed by students at mainland universities, including Virginia Tech and the University of Nebraska. The UH campuses are the only community colleges participating in the launch.

The student experiments will be in flight for 15 to 20 minutes before falling back toward Earth and landing in the Atlantic Ocean. On the way down the payloads will be exposed to blazing-hot temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and moisture from the ocean, requiring students to complete a litany of durability tests.

“We want to do all the stress we can possibly do before we take it up there,” said project mentor Jacob Hudson, who lectures in physics, astronomy, engineering and rocketry at WCC. “We don’t want to have wires disconnecting or anything cracking on the way up or down. We’ve spun it, baked it, shook it, and so far it’s survived everything.”

About half of the students working on the project assembled Thursday at UH-Manoa to perform what’s known as a shake test. The Project Imua unit was bolted to a machine that simulated the intense vibrations of a rocket launch and flight. After the test the cube was opened, and the small electronics were hooked up to computers to ensure they still worked.

Each of the four community college campuses took on different aspects of the project. For example, students at the Kauai campus designed and built the scientific instruments that will collect data, while Honolulu Community College students are designing the electronic circuitry for power and wireless transmission capabilities. Windward students were tasked with integrating all the components and performing static tests.

Later this month several of the students will travel with their project to the Wallops Flight Facility, where the unit will be run through another set of durability tests. The various student-designed payloads will be loaded into a rocket, and the entire capsule will go through more simulation tests before the launch, scheduled for early August.

Several students collaborating on the project say they’ve appreciated the opportunity to gain real-world experience while still in school. Throughout the project’s conceptualization and design, build and test phases, students had teleconferences with NASA officials.

Deb Pei, who studied liberal arts at Honolulu Community College and has enrolled in UH-Manoa’s mechanical engineering program, said working on Project Imua has helped her feel comfortable pitching ideas.

“You get to see the actual process, what kind of questions are asked, how to trouble-shoot. It takes away the fear of presenting a project,” Pei said.

“I’m so comfortable. I’m, like, sitting there chatting with NASA, shooting the breeze,” she recalled with a chuckle.

Elena Barbour, a WCC student who will study computer engineering at UH-Manoa in the fall, said the project forced students to take risks.

“With lectures or with labs, I feel like you don’t get just thrown into things, whereas with projects like this, you learn a lot more by experiencing it and though trial and error,” Barbour said.

She added that she’s learned the importance of teamwork and communication.

“It’s opened up my eyes to what it would take to work on a team. I’d heard from teachers that sometimes you’ll work with, like, 100 people, and I’ve learned it’s a lot harder than you think,” Barbour said. “I think that was one of our biggest challenges with this project because we were spread across different campuses. We had to really make sure our communication was on point.”


Information from: Honolulu Star-Advertiser, https://www.staradvertiser.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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