Marshall Center helps students turn big ideas into better so

by Marshall Space Flight Center

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For most college students, fall is about new classes, football and "burning the midnight oil" to make grades. But while Amanda LaZar, Dave Broderick and Andrew Schnell work toward degrees, they also look forward to adding the title of inventor. As participants at the Marshall Center in NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Program, each has suggested an innovation that soon could be patented and used in the nation's space program.

For most college students, fall is about new classes, football and “burning the midnight oil” it takes to make it to graduation.

But while college students Amanda LaZar, Dave Broderick and Andrew Schnell work toward graduation or advanced degrees, they’re also looking forward to adding the title of inventor. That credential is expected to come hand-in-hand with patents on school projects they worked on this summer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As participants at Marshall in NASA’s Undergraduate Student Research Program, LaZar, Broderick and Schnell suggested innovations that soon could be used in the nation’s space program to increase safety, facilitate inspection and maintenance of delicate equipment and create lightweight structures strong enough to withstand the harsh environment of Earth orbit.

The program offers college students an opportunity to work with a NASA scientist or engineer mentor on research projects at the Marshall Center — projects that relate to or directly extend a student’s classroom experience.

LaZar, a Charleston, S.C., native, is a senior in mechanical engineering at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. When she graduates in May 2003, she expects to have a patented technology under her belt – one she helped develop as a student researcher at the Marshall Center.

Working as a first-year student researcher in Marshall’s Engineering Directorate, LaZar found a way to weld joints on the Space Shuttle External Tank that will both improve safety and reduce repair costs. In the words of her mentor, Marshall engineer Robert Carter, “Amanda’s contributions this summer were invaluable. The tool she helped develop will be of great use in the Shuttle program.”

“Working with such knowledgeable people at the Marshall Center was the experience of a lifetime,” LaZar said.

The daughter of David LaZar and Marlene Beauston of Charleston, LaZar hopes to work for NASA after she finishes her degree.

Andrew Schnell’s innovation, also being patented, is a new manufacturing process that uses balloon-like material inflated with gas and filled with rigidized, or hardened, foam to create beams or other structures. It has potential for both space and ground uses — such as space solar power systems and sporting equipment. One test beam made with this process withstood a pull of almost 600 pounds, even though it weighs less than 2 pounds. If used in place of conventional space structure materials such as metal alloys, Schnell’s product could drastically cut payload weights on the Space Shuttle, which currently cost about $10,000 per pound to launch.

Schnell’s mentor at Marshall, structural dynamics engineer Mike Tinker, said Schnell “helped me accomplish much more research this summer than I could have done alone. It’s astounding to give motivated students a task, turn them loose and watch them run with it.”

Schnell, now in his third year of the student research program, graduated magna cum laude in 2002 from Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

He expects to graduate in December 2004 from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta with a master’s in mechanical engineering. Schnell is the son of Thomas and Theresa Schnell of Murfreesboro, Tenn.

“Many engineers dream of working at NASA and I feel fortunate to have done so early in my career,” said Schnell.

Dave Broderick, a senior in electrical engineering and computer science at Hartford University in Hartford, Conn., has completed his first summer as an undergraduate researcher at Marshall. Working with Imaging Team engineer Jeri Briscoe of Marshall’s Avionics Department, Broderick helped develop a vision-based guidance system for a miniature robot allowing technicians to make inspections and repairs — without dismantling the apparatus. While it’s too soon to file for a patent on the results of Broderick’s work, Briscoe labels it as a much-needed tool that enables advanced development in miniature, diagnostic and repair robots.

“Dave’s skills allowed him to make a significant contribution to my research,” Briscoe said. “He has an unusual ability to grasp new information quickly while needing very little guidance.”

“Using what I learned at Marshall will definitely put me on the fast track in the robotics field after graduation,” Broderick said.

Broderick, the son of Jack and Gisela Broderick of Tolland, Conn., will graduate from Hartford in May 2003.

An applicant to the Undergraduate Student Research Program must be a junior or senior studying a science, math or high technology discipline and holding at least a 3.0 average on a 4.0 grade scale. The 10-week summer program is open to students who attend an accredited college full-time and are U.S. citizens.

More information on educational opportunities with the Marshall Center can be found on the Web at:
About the Marshall Center

The Marshall Center is carrying out NASA’s vision of being the world leader in space transportation systems. With its rich history spanning more than four decades, Marshall remains one of NASA’s largest field centers, occupying over 1,800 acres and employing more than 2,700 civil servants. More than 23,000 contractor personnel are engaged in work for the Center, which has an annual budget of more than $2.3 billion.