Working above and beyond: Undergraduates help build equipment for WCSAR
The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest human-built object in space and to the naked eye, the third brightest object in the night sky. Most of us only can look up at it in awe.
Engineering students Ned Lebens and Tim Payne can point up to it and say, "Hey, I worked on that."
Lebens, Payne and six other undergraduates work for the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics. Under the direction of WCSAR Director Weijia Zhou and WCSAR engineers and scientists, these students gain practical engineering experience working on systems and hardware, some of which goes into space.
"It's nice working at a small research center," says electrical and computer engineering senior Tim Payne. "I'm just a student and yet I have some say in how a project gets done. Ultimately, my supervisor Matt DeMars makes the decisions, but I have a say in what happens. It feels great to have some responsibility."
Payne, whose father is an electrical engineer, started learning computer programming when he was in the first grade. He had a job writing code for a Madison-based company only two days after his high school graduation. At WCSAR, he writes programs for the center's AstrocultureTM projects.
The Advanced Astroculture plant growth unit is an International Space Station payload designed to verify the capability and reliability of subsystems that provide an enclosed, environmentally-controlled plant growth chamber supporting commercial or fundamental plant research in microgravity.
Weijia Zhou hired Payne after talking to him at an EXPO '97 exhibit. Later, when WSCAR needed a student to work on analog electronics, Payne recommended his friend Ned Lebens. Like Payne, Lebens had shown an interest in electronics at an early age, but until taking a job with WCSAR his electronics experience was limited to hobbies and coursework. With guidance from WSCAR staff, Lebens has been charged with everything from reading schematics and ordering parts to wiring and mechanical assembly. Recently, he designed much of the circuitry and layout for an advanced terrestrial plant growth chamber.
"It's a great place to work. It's a lot of fun and it's been a wonderful experience. We work on space flight hardware. We work with plant scientists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and others," Lebens said. One of the unique things is the amount of responsibility that they give to you. We work on things that can have large consequences later. You have to be careful and you take your time and then you check it over and over and over and over again."
WCSAR electrical engineer Perry Sandstrom has overseen the work of a number of student employees over the years. He sees the opportunity for students to work in research labs as one of the greatest advantages UW-Madison has over colleges with less research emphasis. Sandstrom speaks from experience. As an electrical engineering undergraduate, he worked for Materials Science and Engineering Professor Max Lagally.
In 1985, Sandstrom was learning about a new invention called the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in a modern physics class. "I was fascinated that such a straight-forward approach could allow people to visualize atoms on a surface," he says.
That same week, Lagally asked him if he wanted to build the electronics for an STM. Sandstrom jumped at the chance. "One day I was sitting in class thinking about what an elegant solution the scanning tunneling microscope provided. Literally the same week, I became part of an effort to build one of the first constructed," Sandstrom says. "There is a whole level of access to cutting-edge university research through student hourly positions.
"I've always been grateful for the hands-on experience that I received as an undergraduate. At WCSAR, the students are very much part of the team. We have some really excellent students working with us. Our program is very productive and a lot of that is possible because of their talent and enthusiasm."