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Involving NMSU freshmen in engineering research increases retention

Launching a high-altitude balloon to 100,000 feet or remotely carrying out a complex heat transfer experiment in a sounding rocket may sound daunting, but professors in the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University have found that involving freshmen in these types of research projects early in their academic careers have kept students interested in engineering.

Man, center, holds a balloon, while a man, left, and woman watch.
Paulo Oemig (center), New Mexico Space Grant Consortium research scientist, holds a high-altitude balloon during a test in June at the New Mexico State University Horseshoe while Krishna Kota (left), mechanical engineering assistant professor, and Norann Calhoun, chemical engineering senior, assist. A high-altitude balloon launch was part of the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project, which was held during the total solar eclipse earlier this month. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

Since late 2014, Krishna Kota, mechanical engineering assistant professor, and Steve Stochaj, professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have supervised freshmen for a pilot program called Payloads to Space, which is a collaboration between the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium and Hawaii Space Grant Consortium.

“I think the success of this program can be attributed to improving the awareness of students as to what engineering entails and the work of an engineer while simultaneously elevating their excitement levels through cutting-edge research and fun-filled flight opportunities in a team environment,” Kota said.

“Many freshmen drop from engineering majors to pursue other majors or they do not finish the program to completion because either they do not have an idea of the field or they were not exposed to exciting engineering research work. The idea to include freshmen in research is based on published studies that showed that early involvement of freshmen in engineering research will help in their retention.”

Norann Calhoun, a chemical engineering senior, has worked on engineering research projects with the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium through her NMSU career.

“The hands-on work and experience has helped me put my classroom lessons into perspective,” she said. “I love being able to apply what I’ve learned in the classroom into a real world application. I can take my knowledge that I’ve gained in the chemical engineering program and make it work for me in the lab to solve problems that may come up.

“I do not know if I would have still been in engineering if I didn’t have the opportunities that have been given to me,” Calhoun said. “It is easy to lose your way in engineering because it is tough and sometimes you feel alone in your struggle. With these projects I now have my team members to turn to. I see them as a ‘family’ because we have all faced the same problems and worked through them together.”

Last year, the students launched a complex heat transfer experiment in a sounding rocket. Kota noted that electronics in spacecraft and maneuvering military aircraft generate heat that has to be quickly removed for their efficient operation.

He added boiling a liquid over the electronics to remove heat is an attractive option because the boiling process can remove heat while blocking the temperature increase of the electronics. While boiling works well on ground, it will not work in variable or micro-gravity environments to cool electronics since there may not always be a buoyancy force to remove the vapor bubbles from the surface. The bubbles merge to form a vapor layer that covers the entire hot surface, which drastically affects the boiling process and rapidly increases the temperature of the electronics beyond their limits.

“We were trying to see if forced pumping of a cooling liquid over the hot electronic component surface would strip the vapor bubbles off the surface due to the liquid momentum and thus enable boiling as an option for space cooling systems,” Kota said.

“These freshmen built a cooling system, which is a complex setup, to test this phenomenon and it involves fine tuning of many components to make them work in an array, and with the generous help of personnel from Spaceport America, they launched it in a sounding rocket from Alamogordo in July 2016,” he said. “The recorded data showed that both the hot surface temperature and the coolant temperature did not increase much, which implies that boiling of the coolant was continuously occurring during the flight, irrespective of the gravity condition, which in turn implies that the moving liquid was able to strip the vapor bubbles off the hot surface.”

During this project, Kota led the science discussions and supervised the design and assembly of the cooling system set-up, while Stochaj helped the students on the instrumentation, electronics, and remote measurements of the data in addition to serving as a senior mentor. Joshua Budish, who started as an undergraduate on this project, now assists Kota as a master’s student in mechanical engineering.

Kota especially credited Patricia Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, with initiating and overseeing the project, funding the freshmen students, and finding excellent and low-cost flight opportunities.

This year, the experiment was launched as a payload in a high-altitude balloon and dropped from 100,000 feet during the NASA-sponsored Eclipse Ballooning Project, which was conducted during the total solar eclipse earlier this month. Paulo Oemig with the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium played a big role in helping and guiding the team.