Magnetic attraction: In hands-on course, freshmen design shielding for space travel

// Engineering Physics, Biomedical Engineering

Photo of first-year engineering students in InterEngr 170

First-year engineering students work to design a magnetic shielding system that could protect astronauts on interplanetary space flights. Photo by Alex Holloway/College of Engineering.

Students in the fall 2020 freshman design course are taking on an out-of-this-world project.

InterEngr 170 is a class that gives first-year Badger engineers valuable hands-on learning opportunities as they begin their education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the course, students are assigned a project and broken into groups to plan designs and build presentations to explain their work.

In 2020, their challenge is a groundbreaking project with huge potential for interplanetary travel.

Photo of John Murphy teaching
Engineering Physics faculty associate John Murphy talks to students in the InterEngr 170 freshman design course. The courts puts students in groups to work on real-world projects. Photo by Alex Holloway/College of Engineering.

“Our goal is to design a magnetic shielding device for spaceships for long space travel to Mars,” says first-year nuclear engineering student Charlie Erickson. “The shield is to protect against solar radiation. What we’re doing is designing a first step in the process.”

Paolo Desiati, a senior astrophysicist at UW-Madison who works with the Ice Cube Neutrino Observatory, is the students’ client. Desiati has funding from NASA for the magnetic shielding project, and meets regularly with the students—and John Murphy, a faculty associate in engineering physics and one of the instructors for the course—to walk them through the physics of solar radiation and space travel.

Magnetic shielding systems could provide protection for future astronauts from the radiation hazards of prolonged space travel. Such a system might work in the same way the Earth’s magnetosphere—a bubble of magnetized plasma surrounding the planet and created by its magnetic field—protects us by deflecting harmful radiation carried in the solar wind. Researchers have for years looked to magnetic shielding as a solution for long-range space travel, but it comes with its own challenges—one of which is power generation.

Though the overall project has big implications and the feel of futuristic work from a sci-fi movie, the InterEngr 170 students are, for now, keeping their focus small as they hash out designs and prepare briefings on their work to present to their classmates. Murphy says that later in the course, they’ll work on creating a small-scale prototype that could lay the foundation for later radiation shielding work.

“We had to set expectations about what we can do in a freshman design course,” he says. ”We’re not going to be able to build an actual prototype, but we’re looking at designing a sort of benchtop experiment—something small that can be scaled up. But who knows, 15 or 20 years from now, phase 10 of the project might be going up to space for testing.”

Regardless of the project’s ultimate outcome, the practicum gives first-year students invaluable hands-on time to work on “hard” engineering skills. Biomedical Engineering student Nicole Parmenter says it’s nice to have an early experience that requires both research and creativity and emulates the type of work that will come after college.

“Beyond learning the hard skills like chemistry or math, I’d argue it’s more important that we’re learning those soft skills like communicating with a team,” says biomedical engineering student Raad Allawi. “We’re learning to work together and listen to different ideas to build a better project. It’s a unique experience, but it’s an essential one. If you’re an engineer, you’re never really working alone.”

Murphy teaches the class with co-instructor Courtney Lynch and says that collaborative experience is a crucial part of InterEngr 170, which has been a part of the college’s first-year experience since 1995. Now, Murphy says, it’s a cornerstone for establishing hands-on engineering experience and critical soft skills for freshmen from all of the college’s departments.

And, Murphy says, the sky’s not actually the limit. “There are a huge range of projects—another group is coming up with collars for tracking grizzly bears, for example—but the idea is that the design process is very general and you can apply it to anything,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about engineers inventing something, but what we want them to get out of this course is to learn how to design something as a team and how to build high-performing teams. When you look at academia, industry, the public sector—that’s what everybody wants.”

Author: Alex Holloway