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Members of SpaceWorks 1 class learn from their mistakes

May 1, 2018

ASU's next-gen space explorers deploy landers — and find out how just many things can go wrong

Fire. Equipment failure. Sensor malfunction. Punctures in space suits.

The list of what can go (and has gone) wrong in space is a long one, as students in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration’s SpaceWorks 1 class can now tell you.

Taught by NASA veteran and Regents’ Professor Phil Christensen, the class teaches students how space scientists and engineers work in the real world to explore the solar system. Skills like meeting NASA mission development timelines and knowing what program managers and manufacturing engineers do will smooth their entry into the field.

A month ago, student teams launched landing craft from the sixth-floor balcony of the ISTB4 atrium. The landers were all built under design restrictions: They had to drop a payload, have it safely land in one piece on a target, and then deploy something. There was a weight restriction of 500 grams for the whole package, and it couldn't have any power.

In the first round, most of the landers made it to the ground intact. There were a few crashes, but a few deployments too. 

Victoria Froh checks the parachute in her team's planetary lander

Victoria Froh, a freshman in earth and space exploration and chemistry, checks the parachute in her team's planetary lander, in Regents' Professor Phil Christensen's SES 394 Special Topics course at ISTB4 on April 25. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

During the final round on April 25, the landers were bigger and more elaborate — and more disaster-prone. “But it worked in testing” became the evening’s mantra.

The first team to launch had a nice, soft landing, but it was so far off course it didn't even hit ISTB4's moon carpet, let alone the target. The second lander crashed spectacularly, spraying parts across the floor. What went down as a carefully engineered lander came back as a cardboard box full of parts.

Alexander Elledge, freshman in Astrophysics, left, along with Professor Phil Christensen

Alexander Elledge (left), freshman in astrophysics, and Regents' Professor Phil Christensen look at the "Lander Calrissian" module after its fall April 25. The strings got tangled, preventing the two chutes from properly deploying. Students will write reviews of their projects — successes and failures — as part of their final grades. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Richard Lindeman, a continuing student studying astrophysics, watched glumly from the sixth floor. He blamed launching from a bouncing wire as the reason for his team’s epic wreck. Originally they were told they’d launch from a rigid arm, he said.  

“With our design our parachute is tied up,” Lindeman said. “It deploys by a zip line attached to the string. The bouncing motion tangles the strings up.”

The lander tested fine, he swore. He held his phone out, showing video of a successful launch off the roof of a house to anyone who would watch. The craft was supposed to retract the parachute upon landing.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It was working good in testing. The parachute didn’t deploy at all this time, so it fell to its death.”

Lindeman shook his head. “All that work, gone in three seconds.” 

How much work? Four or five iterations in the engineering program SolidWorks, three 3D prints, eight hours machining weight from the skids, and endless testing, not to mention all the time Lindeman, a stranger to needle and thimble, spent sewing the parachute. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “It was a lot of hours.”

Throughout the class Christensen told students about a litany of disasters in space exploration, of which there are many, like the Soviet Venus probe that landed, popped off a protective shield, extended a sampling arm and promptly put the instrument onto the shield (not the planet).

Lindeman has taken classes with Christensen before.

“It’s just really fun working with him,” he said. “Even though it’s not directly related to the core stuff I’m working on, it’s fun to take part in it.”

ASU student-built planetary lander

A planetary lander, built by Nathanael Mains, junior in astrophysics, and Michael Garland, sophomore in aerospace astronautics, begins its fall to the floor April 25. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

What Lindeman and the rest of the class learned is that engineering and science are learning processes, Christensen said.

“The purpose of this class was to provide students real opportunities to try out ideas, make mistakes and learn from them,” Christensen said. “Most groups changed their designs, and in many cases that created new problems — like their landers being too heavy. I’m sure that if they had one more try, most of these landers would have worked very well."

Not all failed. Nathanael Mains, a junior majoring in astrophysics, and Michael Garland, a sophomore majoring in aerospace astronautics, watched in triumph as their craft wafted gently down on target.

“It was good,” Mains said. “It was what we expected. Our deployment was fine.”

“We tried to keep it small and simple,” Garland said.

ASU Jerry Lacey, staff member, Nathanael Mains, junior in Astrophysics and Michael Garland, sophomore in Aerospace Astronautics

Jerry Lacey (left), a staff member with Instrument Design and Fabrication, waits to hitch a planetary lander to the launch mechanism, as junior Nathanael Mains and sophomore Michael Garland (right) make final adjustments in Regents' Professor Phil Christensen's SES 394 Special Topics course April 25. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Their launch a month before was unsuccessful. They discovered their parachute strings were uneven and too short. By lengthening the strings and keeping them uniform, the chute deployed and the lander wafted to the ground.

Problem solved, and lesson learned.

Top photo: Despite its soft landing, the planetary lander built by Garrett Nez, senior in aerospace engineering and astronautics, and Victoria Froh, freshman in earth and space exploration and chemistry, still lost one of its legs during the lander drop in Regents' Professor Phil Christensen's SES 394 Special Topics course April 25 in ISTB4 on the Tempe campus. Twelve teams created modules that would fall three floors, deploy a controlled landing device and land on a mat on the impact-crater carpet. This is the second and final iteration of the modules, following the previous drop a month ago. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy tied for top spot in Arizona school ratings

ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy in Mesa among top-scoring schools in Arizona.
May 1, 2018

The ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy in Mesa tied for the top spot in Arizona school ratings for 2017, based on the final letter grades and scores recently released by the state Department of Education.

The K-4 charter school, located on ASU’s Polytechnic campus, and Ocotillo Ridge Elementary School in Pinal County tied for the highest percentage in scoring based on a formula that weighs proficiency in the AzMERIT standardized tests, as well as improvement in scores of some subgroups of students, and other factors, such as absenteeism.

ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy earned a score of 92 out of a total of 90 eligible points.

“We are thrilled, and it’s great because it shows that what we’re doing is working,” said Principal Claudia Mendoza. “Our teachers work hard every single day, but now we can celebrate.”

She said the school received extra points because so many of the students are working above grade level.

RELATED: ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy principal receives national charter school award

“Our students continue to push and are excited to learn. We let them lead the way and they surprise us,” she said.

The scores were based on testing that happened in the spring of 2017, and Mendoza and the staff are already focused on next year.

“We’re going to continue business as usual because that’s what we do,” she said.

Across Arizona, 317 schools received an A ranking for 2017, 602 were graded B, 478 earned a C, 158 schools were given a D, 38 received an F and 128 were under review or not graded.

The scores became final last month after the preliminary scores were released last fall, before an appeal period. Mendoza said that when the initial scores came out, she expected her school would be in the top 10 but that she was surprised at getting the highest score.

“I was here late when I heard and we were just so happy,” she said.

The ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy campus includes both an elementary and middle school. The K-4 elementary school earned the top percentage and an A grade, while the sixth- through eighth-grade middle school earned a B.

The ASU Prep Poly STEM High School, also on the ASU Polytechnic campus, also earned an A. The schools are part of the ASU Prep network, which was launched in 2008 and educates 2,000 K-12 students at four locations: Mesa, downtown Phoenix, Tempe and Casa Grande. The network recently merged with an existing charter school and in fall 2018 will open ASU Prep South Phoenix - PCA. In 2017, ASU Prep Digital was launched to provide online education.

Mendoza attributed her students’ proficiency to the Cambridge curriculum, an internationally benchmarked set of lessons that focuses on developing critical thinking skills and applying knowledge to real life through collaboration. All of the ASU Prep schools use it.

“A big part of Cambridge is that they’re asking students for more than being able to answer the question. We’re not worried about memorizing the algorithm in math or the rules in reading just to memorize them. We ask them to apply them,” she said.

“With the Cambridge curriculum in kindergarten, first and second grade, it’s teaching them to think and not just settle for even the way the teacher is telling them to solve it.”

This year, more than 50 eighth-graders are taking accelerated math and earning high school credit, she said.

The school was recently certified as a STEM academy by AdvancED, undergoing a rigorous process showing how it incorporates science, technology, engineering and math into everyday instruction. For example, the school showed how kindergarteners created a supply chain to set up a lemonade stand.

Mendoza, who received a master’s degree from ASU, came to the school six years ago, when it only went to fourth grade and had 13 teachers and 230 students. Now, there are 730 students in K-8 with 37 teachers, plus eight student teachers from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

“Hopefully we can have some celebrations soon,” she said.

Top photo: Kindergarteners Ryan Parsons (right) and Jaxyn Geyer (left) place blocks on graph paper, as teammate Leila Wilhelmi watches at the ASU Prep Poly STEM Academy. Their project involved basic coding, as they set up a maze and then ran a bot motor through it. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now