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Experiencing the NASA DIRECT-STEM Program

Cynthia Lin, Performing Arts Editor

What do you get when you mix ambitious students with a love of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)? The NASA Data Intensive Research and Education Center for STEM (NASA DIRECT-STEM)! Over this past summer, I was a part of this program, where I interned at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) alongside students and a professor. After being truly amazed by the determination and hard work of the program’s students, I quickly realized how wonderful NASA DIRECT-STEM would be for students interested in STEM like I am.

The NASA DIRECT-STEM program is designed for minority students who are highly competitive and interested in the STEM field. The program recruits historically underrepresented students and gives them hands-on experience in STEM fields such as coding, geographic sciences, data analysis, and more. NASA DIRECT-STEM’s mission is to inspire students to pursue STEM-related professions and help expand their knowledge about STEM fields, such as “areas of hydrology and climate change, computational physics, and cloud computing [that] directly [contribute] to NASA’s mission goals.” Through this amazing program, students are able to perform research and train among professors at CSULA, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and University of California, Irvine.

Personally, my experience with the program opened my eyes to a teamwork-oriented environment where students could directly work with professors specialized in STEM fields of their choice. I shadowed Dr. Mohsen Eshraghi, a Professor in Mechanical Engineering, and his students at AM2L, CSULA’s specialized NASA laboratory. He and his students specialize in additive manufacturing and computational materials science. AM2L consists of different types of advanced computers such as the Dell Fenix workstation, which has 88 graphics processors (meaning close to 1,000 cords to utilize)! Entering the laboratory, you may find as many as five to six people working on their projects, focused on and invested in either the printing or computer area. Most of their advanced 3D printers are used by students to conduct research. These 3D printers range from The Fused Deposition Modeling printer to metal additive manufacturing printers.

Graduate Ryan Lenart, one of the students in this program, first got into the program because he “liked computational programming and coding.” He specializes in computational material science and is currently working on micro-solidifying alloys, 3D crystals, and predicting their industrial, aerospace, and behavior. His research topic is on “Modeling Dendritic Solidification Using Lattice Boltzmann and Phase Field Methods.” Lenart enjoys sequentially coding, and the program allows him to explore his interests fully.

I still remember when Lenart kindly showed me analytical models and phase fields of different materials. To me, they looked like flowers, but to him, it is science that explains his research. This incident made me realize just how deep certain STEM fields went and how in depth his studies were. Furthermore, he explained to me about his work with CUDA C Implementation, a type of coding where he writes finite difference function. He was only able to learn advanced skills and programs needed to perform this task through the NASA DIRECT-STEM program.

Another pair of students, graduates Miguel Navarro and Amer Natar, are a part of Senior Design. They specifically designed their own 3D printer. Navarro is focused on the research of the “Effect of Process Parameters on the Microstructure and Mechanical Properties of Nickel Superalloys Processed by Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing,” while Natar researches about “Optimization of Process Parameters for Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing of the Ti-6Al-4V Alloy.” From my observations at the laboratory, I could see the hard work in processing their parameters and the repetition of research in order to see how results change and to gain accuracy. When asked about how he feels about his research, Natar beamed down at his work and said, “I’m really proud that I can explain everything and make changes” to his research. These two students usually work in the lab anywhere from 25 to 30 hours per week during the school year and about 12 hours per week in the summer.

Every week, Dr. Eshraghi holds group meetings where his students present an update on where their research is heading and where he can offer insight and guidance. When Navarro presented a predicament with how repeating layers on his slab ruined the thin walls his 3D printer was making, Dr. Eshraghi advised him, saying that “perhaps doing this on a different plate would be better.” Dr. Eshraghi reviews his students’ research and inquires them for better solutions throughout the meetings.

All in all, I found Dr. Eshraghi and his students to be kind and open to discussion about their work and determined in their research. Although every person may be researching something different, there is a fine sense of teamwork as many are working on projects together. I am truly grateful to have experienced such a welcoming atmosphere of scholars from the NASA DIRECT-STEM program. I definitely feel that it is a great program to invest in and highly recommend it. For more information on NASA DIRECT-STEM and AM2L, visit http://www.calstatela.edu/centers/NASA_DIRECT_STEM and http://am2l.com/.

Graphics courtesy of THETECHNEW.COM

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Experiencing the NASA DIRECT-STEM Program