Engineering students' proposal advances in NASA competition
Helping to inspire and educate future scientists is a mission in which both NASA and University of Houston-Clear Lake are deeply invested.
The NASA Minority Innovative New Designs for Space (MINDS) program, a hands-on design-and-build collegiate learning experience, selects newly-innovated technology that is relevant to NASA's Artemis mission.
"The NASA MINDS program's goal is helping undergraduate students in Hispanic-Serving Institutions get the opportunity to work on a mission and train them so that they'll be inspired to continue their education and then join NASA," said Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ariful Bhuiyan.
With a team of 12 students, most of them sophomore mechanical engineering majors, Bhuiyan said that he became the competition's faculty adviser after teaching a course in engineering graphics last spring. "I like to motivate students and work in group projects," he said. "The students developed a good rapport and decided to do something different. They approached me, saying they enjoyed a challenge and would like to be part of the NASA MINDS project."
Bhuiyan said he felt lucky to have such proactive students. "I am new to UH-Clear Lake," he said. "I thought this would be a great project and a very helpful experience for them. I became their faculty guide and mentor, and we started to meet and brainstorm. After a few weeks, we completed and submitted the first proposal for our design."
The team was thrilled that their proposal was accepted, along with $1500 to help fund the second stage of the project, which is constructing a prototype.
"We have innovated a design for a stand to hold the solar panel on the International Space Station," he explained. "We designed a mechanical system that will extend and retract solar panels, with a deployed area of 35 square meters, on the lunar surface. The entire structure will be 20-30 meters tall when extended, but it has the collapsible capability for relocating, repurposing, or refurbishing. We had to make something that would extend later, when it's activated — a bit like a flower blooming."
The stand, he continued, must also be completely flat. "If it's flat, when it's located in a certain place on the ISS, it will capture the maximum solar energy," he said. "The sun will be direct to that panel."
Bhuiyan said he was particularly pleased with this team because it included two women. "I'm so happy to have them on this team," he said. "We want to increase the engagement of women in mechanical engineering. I hope this encourages other women to participate. We want more in this program, but we are going in the right direction."
Atalanda Cameron, who is working toward her bachelor of science in environmental science with environmental biology specialization, is one of the women on the team. "I thought this would be beneficial for me because I have a history of competing in NASA competitions," she said. "When I heard a team was starting, I thought I could assist with research-based tasks and writing reports in the style NASA requests."
She said she liked joining competitions because she enjoyed the team-building experience, which she has missed during the COVID-19 restrictions. "I always find it beneficial to work with others, test my own limits, and challenge myself," she said. "It's why I am drawn to these competitions — I think it's fun to work together and build something with a group, as a team."
Doing an engineering competition that is somewhat outside her own program, she said, gives her lots of practice in research and writing technical reports. "This will be really beneficial down the line when I'm looking for a job," she said.
Her aspiration, she added, is to complete a dual degree in environmental law with a doctorate in environmental science. She plans to graduate from UHCL in spring 2021.
"I think there are so many barriers for women in STEM because the opportunities are not presented to them as much as to male students. I would say, if you find something interesting, don't think it's not for you because you'd be the only female," she said. "Dr. Bhuiyan is very encouraging to women and values the input of every student."
Bhuiyan said the team will be working on refining their design all year. "We will be demonstrating how our concept works, and we'll be competing with other universities," he said. "If we win, our team receives a $5,000 award."
Learn more about UHCL's Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering online.