Status Report

NASA Goddard’s Innovation Lab: Creating a Future

By SpaceRef Editor
August 1, 2012
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Goddard intern Kirby Carmack works on the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, one of the 3-D printers in the Innovation Lab. (Credit: NASA Goddard/Jacob Larsen)

Interns at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are an extraordinary group. Their eyes brighten at the mention of an informative lecture, they eagerly ask questions as you pass by in the hallways, and they talk about their projects with unbounded enthusiasm. Could these high school and college students be the secret to infusing our workforce with renewed passion?

Matthew Showalter, associate branch head in the Advanced Manufacturing Branch (AMB), at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Md., believes so. For several years he has utilized the unique talent and fresh thinking of interns from around the country to collaborate on a project he calls the Innovation Lab. When complete, the Innovation Lab will support Goddard research and development at low or no cost, while simultaneously recruiting the next generation of engineers and scientists for the center’s workforce.

The Innovation Lab is currently being developed by six interns. Paul Kubitschek, an undergraduate from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Kris Kincheloe, a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla., assist Showalter in mentoring a team of four high school interns who are engineering the equipment that will populate the lab. The goal is to have a safe, enclosed work area filled with rapid prototyping machines like 3-D printers, micro mills, lathes, laser cutting and marking systems, and other advanced technologies. These machines will manufacture the parts needed to successfully test models created with computer-aided design software.

One project on which the team of interns is currently collaborating is the construction of a granite base table, which provides a precise, flat plane for mounting a computer-controlled Sherline micro mill. The mill will hopefully be used in working with materials reinforced with microscopic carbon nanotubes, one of the frontiers in materials science, and needs to have the precision to be able to produce components with micro geometry. Future work on the design will include engineering a sealed enclosure with a vacuum and filtering system to capture excess materials, produced during the milling operation, for safe disposal.

It is central to the branch’s goal that interns are able to completely run the Innovation Lab with guidance and mentoring from AMB personnel. Showalter hopes that by bringing in particularly promising young men and women as interns, he will have a hand in pipelining permanent talent into the center through the Mechanical Systems Division. This happens as students are exposed to networking opportunities, current projects and the valuable experience of accomplishing real work in the machine shop. “Although the hardware is important, it is really the people who are the most vital aspect of a project,” Showalter says. “We could have the best hardware in the world, but if we do not have the people with the experience to work on that hardware, it minimizes the return on the investment we have in the hardware.” Using high school and undergraduate students to work in the lab will provide valuable experience in design, manufacturing, fabrication and assembly to the next generation of engineers and scientists who participate.

Ming Ma, a high school intern who will be attending the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in the fall, expressed his hope that this opportunity will eventually translate into a full-time position at Goddard. The practical work experience of the Innovation Lab will also aid intern Parth Aghera in his plans to pursue mechanical engineering.

The interns are learning more than just the engineering behind the designs; they are learning how to function in a professional workforce. Kirby Carmack, a rising senior at Poolesville High School in Maryland says he has learned about how to present ideas to upper management. “If you have a time slot for a presentation or a design you would like to pitch, you need to be prepared and ready to go,” he says. “By prepared, I mean that you have to know every little detail about your design…it’s your job to defend it.”

Daniel Diazdelcastillo, rising freshman at Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pa., majoring in material science and engineering, agrees. He says that by working in the lab, he learned that “speaking up to the manager or mentor about possible solutions and other alternatives is important. Presenting is the key in any situation to prove a certain design is the best design for the specific task.”

Whether getting experience in the practical engineering behind rapid-prototyping machines or learning about more subtle points such as working on a team, the interns are finding out what it is like to work in Goddard’s diverse community. The interns in the Innovation Lab are only six out of about 500 students working at Goddard this summer.

So the next time you walk by that intern in the halls of your office building, take a second look. In a few years they could be your officemate.

SpaceRef staff editor.