Last summer, Georgia Tech launched a program that brought nearly 40 high-school students face-to-face with real, goal-oriented university research. Known as the Science, Technology and Engineering Pipeline (STEP), the ambitious program is returning for a second year, having won praise from both participating students and their teachers.
All STEP projects directly contribute to ongoing undergraduate- or graduate-level research work. This year, the program is conducted under the auspices of the Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL) and the NASA Georgia Space Grant Consortium (GSGC).
The two-month program is free to those who are accepted. The Atlanta-area students work in teams, advised by Georgia Tech research scientists and graduate students who serve as mentors.
“Interest in the program has been strong all spring, and applications have come in at a pretty high rate,” said Kelly Griendling, a Georgia Tech research engineer who designed and directed the STEP program. “I've gotten a lot of emails that basically say, ‘I heard from my friend that this was a great program, and I'd like to do it.’ ”
Last summer’s two-month program, she explained, dropped a wide range of knotty aerospace and vehicle related problems into the laps of student teams. The teams worked on portions of these real-world projects, and what the students achieved went to advance those projects. The students could ask for help from their mentors when necessary, but most of the time they worked on their own.
Kelly Ingle, a teacher at Kennesaw Mountain High School who is familiar with STEP, believes that the students who participated in last summer’s program experienced “real life,” gaining independence, improving problem-solving abilities, and learning to be team players in actual research.
“I have two students in my current classes who attended STEP last summer,” Ingle said. “Watching their approach to research this semester, it’s evident to me that the STEP experience was beneficial.”
The atmosphere in the STEP research laboratories last summer seemed both highly enthusiastic and very serious. On one late-July afternoon, a visitor to STEP found a 10th grade student working at a computer developing robotic-vision capability software for a U.S. Navy autonomous boat concept. A few feet away, two 10th grade students were using a CAD workstation to explore a NASA project that aims to move an asteroid millions of miles through space to a moon orbit.
Nearby, an 11th grader was trouble-shooting a hybrid-electric aircraft engine. At the next desk his colleagues were working on the hybrid engine itself, which had been designed to power an innovative unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was being developed by yet another STEP team.
Last summer’s youthful researchers seemed to like STEP’s throw-them-in-the-deep-end approach.
Nick Tysver, a 10th grader from Lithia Springs High School who was on the autonomous boat/robotics vision team, told a visitor last summer: "It was really interesting – on the first day the mentors were like, 'This is your project, get going.’ That isn't at all like high school, where they inch you along – here they get you going in the right direction, and you know you're going to end up doing fine."
Projects for the 2015 STEP session haven’t been finalized. They will likely include both established and new research topics.
Both new students and some returning students will participate in this summer’s program.
“GSGC is thrilled to be working with ASDL to expand the highly effective program to multiple labs in Aerospace Engineering,” said Professor Stephen Ruffin, director of the GSGC.
Although summer 2015 applications have recently closed, interested parties can contact Kelly Griendling (email@example.com) to inquire about applications for future semesters.
During the 2014 session, most students participated on one of six teams:
- The Hybrid Electric team worked on an airborne hybrid-electric propulsion system designed by a Georgia Tech graduate student.
- The UAV Design team was tasked with designing an unmanned aircraft that would be powered by the hybrid electric engine.
- The Asteroid Capture team worked on a NASA plan to redirect an asteroid to a stable orbit around the moon, where astronauts can later visit it for research purposes.
- The Quadrotor team was required to assemble and test several kits for quadrotors – small helicopters propelled by four propellers – and then design, build and test a custom quadrotor.
- The Rotor/Propeller Testing team performed a series of wind-tunnel tests on various motor-propeller combinations, to gather data and make performance predictions that can be used to support vehicle design efforts.
- The Autonomous Boat team focused on developing software code for an autonomous boat design, as part of a Naval Engineering Education Center (NEEC) project.
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Writer: Rick Robinson