Space cadets

Local students compete in global NASA competition

Rover riders, clockwise from top, Madelyn Newcombe, Patrick Thompson, Shannon Palmer, Emily Johnson and Lori Berg with their 2015 Mars rover entry.

Rover riders, clockwise from top, Madelyn Newcombe, Patrick Thompson, Shannon Palmer, Emily Johnson and Lori Berg with their 2015 Mars rover entry.

Photo/Ashley Hennefer

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High school is intended to prepare students for the “real” world, but for students at the Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology (AACT), one project prepares them for what’s possible beyond the real world—space travel.

This was the fifth year AACT participated in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, a public event in which students from colleges and high schools around the world compete and design their own Mars rover.

AACT is a career technical school. Although it offers the same curriculum as the other schools in Washoe County School District, it also offers specified career tracks like engineering, business or education. The campus is equipped with an engineering lab where students can build projects—like a rover intended for space.

The project is a way for NASA to get community involvement to help solve some very real problems. Dan Ruby, director of the Fleischmann Planetarium & Science Center, heard about the project and helped AACT facilitate it. Each year brings a new challenge, and for 2015, students could not use any tires; current rover designs struggle with covering the Mars terrain, so NASA encouraged participants to think beyond traditional wheel design.(The tires in this photo are bike-tire replacements for local mobility.)

“This year, the challenge overall was that we couldn’t have any tires within the rover so we had to make our own wheel,” said AACT junior Emily Johnson. This instantly sparked the competition for the students. “One of our teachers, as soon as he heard about the no-tire-allowed challenge, put a challenge within his CAD [computer aid design] classes and he said whoever can come up with the best idea for the wheel can help with the rover. Multiple students helped out and came up with ideas for what should be done with the wheel. We came up with one that’s solid and durable.”

This was Johnson’s first year to participate. “Last year I knew some of the rover riders and they told me I should get involved because it was a very big project in the school. … I feel very good about the project. It helped me personally. I want to become a mechanical engineer.”

She helped by writing part of the report, and explaining how the project works. The idea was to emulate a tire but add more features to increase the adaptability of the wheel as it climbs over rocks, crevices and sand.

“What we did for the wheel was we used a Chub Hub [in the center of the wheel], which I believe was used in the previous rover,” said Johnson.

They then designed new spokes to fit a Clown Shoe bicycle rim, added sheet metal, indented the metal and filled in indents with rubber—“to give it more support,” said Johnson.

Once the new wheel structure was created, “We put a sand bike or snow bike tread on the wheel to give it more traction,” said fellow team member Patrick Thompson. This was intended to help tackle the difficult Mars landscape by relating it to familiar Earth terrain.

Mission possible

Three dozen students participated this year, according to Johnson and her teacher, Addison Wilhite, who also serves as faculty adviser for the project.

“We all work together as a team, but we work on different parts of the rover,” Johnson said. “We divide into sub-teams.”

The initial planning stage was collaborative.

“In the engineering academy, teachers and students had a discussion about how the wheel was going to work,” she says. Once the idea was established, students worked to build it and write the report.

In April, a select group of students then traveled to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to participate in a two-day challenge. Although students of all grades at AACT can participate, only juniors and seniors are usually picked to go to Alabama.

“The model is that ’Not everyone who builds the rocket gets to go to the moon,’ and that’s the model we use,” said Wilhite.

This year, the Reno team won third place overall. A high school team from San Juan, Puerto Rico, won first place and a team from Moscow won second place. The Reno team also won the System Safety Award for their design. “This is the 22nd year the event has been going on, and our fifth,” said Wilhite.

“The first year we won the Rookie Team award. The second team won the Featherweight Award [for lightest design], and the third year we won the Neil Armstrong Best Design Award. Last year we won everything. So we still placed on the podium this year, and there are a bunch of different competitions within the contest.”

Regardless of the placement—which is still admirably high—Wilhite says the students’ learning experience is the best part.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I get to do,” he said.

Each year, Wilhite and the students build upon the existing rover design.

“It starts in the engineering classes, in the CAD and SolidWorks lab,” he said. “The students write reports, and we create drawings on the whiteboard. Then the fabrication and welding labs help and the pieces sort of come together. The idea is to get something that survives the course, which is a simulated Mars landscape. It’s part of R&D [research and development] for NASA. The question is, how well are these things going to survive when they hit things?”

In Alabama, the teams prepare for a rover race on the simulated Mars landscape. It rained this year, and the rover has a bit of rust on the frame as a result, but it’s still an impressive display of machinery. While in Alabama, the students work in an educational workshop forum with a NASA engineer who is also one of the scientists driving the real NASA rovers on Mars.

“Anyone who wants to get involved, they are very welcome,” Johnson said. “It’s a very nice experience to be in the team. It teaches you how to work with others. It works with all subjects, from English to engineering.”

Both Johnson and Wilhite emphasize the interdisciplinary aspect of the project; students with varying interests can still find a way to participate. Although Johnson is passionate about engineering, she contributed her writing skills to the project, and those are intrinsically linked and necessary to come up with new ideas, research the feasibility, and then make it come to life.

“It’s not just engineering,” said Wilhite. “I love the fact that we had a bunch of students from the medical academy working on the safety systems report, students from the communication academy working on writing and business academy students working on the funding. It’s problem-based learning. And it’s really awesome for them to walk away and say, ’Hey, I was involved in a NASA project.’”