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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Local High School Students Perform Engineering Work During Draper Internships

High school students performed engineering work on projects including flight simulations, spacecraft that can explore the moon, and a cardiac compression device that is typically handled by adults during internships at Draper Laboratory this summer.

The internship program is part of Draper’s efforts to stimulate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, and help groom the next generation of engineers.

Simran Dhillon, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, experienced the real world of engineering while working on Draper’s prototype lunar hopper, Talaris. Unlike the rovers that have explored the Moon and Mars, the hopper is a robot designed to explore planetary surfaces by hopping rather than driving, enabling it to cover greater distances far more quickly, and reach areas that would be inaccessible to wheeled vehicles.

Throughout the summer, Dhillon was responsible for writing a software program that simulates lunar landing. The program helps to improve the hopper’s vision and navigation as it simulates various terrain and lighting conditions, essentially allowing Dhillon and mentoring engineer Bobby Cohanim to see rocks, craters and everything else through the robot’s eyes.

“I hope to keep Simran around!,” said Cohanim, a Cambridge resident. “I am amazed by how much he knows – much more than I ever did as a high school student.”

Other students at Draper this summer included Edward Shin, a junior at Lexington High School, and Samuel Rosenstein, a junior at Gann Academy in Newton, who worked closely with Draper engineer Russell Smith. The students focused on running flight simulations, with small changes in each trial, and analyzed the data.

“I got to work with engineering concepts that were many levels above what I’ve done before, but with help I was able to absorb a lot of new information,” Shin said. “Working on something as real and as complex as a flight simulation taught me many new skills and left me with a sense of fulfillment.”

To accomplish this work, Smith had to first tutor the students in some math and physics concepts not typically included in high school courses.

According to Smith, Shin and Rosenstein already had strong mathematical backgrounds, which made it easier to explain physics-based ideas of mechanical motion quickly and more efficiently.

“He taught us pre-calculus, calculus, and linear algebra in the course of two weeks, so I guess I would have to credit him with most of my math education,” Rosenstein said.

Over in Draper’s bioengineering lab, rising senior Michael Pigula worked with mentor Jeff Borenstein and others on the development of a cardiac compression device. The team built an artificial muscle that is operated by air.

After building a set of “air muscles,” Pigula, a Concord resident who attends the Middlesex School, helped test them in the form of a contractile sheet, which mimics how muscles move. He then took comprehensive data on the tests to use as an early prototype of a cardiac compression device. These devices can ultimately be used to enhance right ventricular function in cardiac patients who have already received a left ventricular assist device.

“It was wonderful working with Michael and he seemed to be very inspired by the project and by the outstanding engineering environment here at the lab with all of our resources in terms of staff, equipment, and knowledge,” said Borenstein.

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