NASA provides internship program, ‘space’ grant

STEM students build robots, improve skills

By Magali Mercado, Staff Writer

Students were given the opportunity to express creative instincts and enhance their technical abilities by building robots with functional capabilities over the summer.

NASA and the California Space Grant Consortium (CaSGC) Microcomputer and Robotics Internship Program gave 300 students the opportunity to work on robotics projects using coding through a grant for two years.

There were 12 students selected from Contra Costa College and worked in teams of four to create whatever they wanted, engineering student Christian Vazquez said. There was no limit as to what students could create. Each team was given a payment of $750.

The program was applied by UC San Diego and a grant was given to 12 community colleges across California with only three in Northern California and CCC was one of them.

Physics and astronomy department Chairperson Jon Celesia helped make the program happen  at CCC, physics and engineering assistant professor Mark Wong said.

He said the purpose of this program was to attract people at community colleges, students that had yet to transfer and expose them to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field.

Students were given lessons on how to use Arduino boards, an open source microcontroller that allows people to be able to program to create endless projects like robots, drones and helicopters, coding and programming.

“Building was my favorite part because with Arduino the possibilities of what you can create are endless and everyone had a big imagination when it came to ideas,” Vazquez said.

Students were given kits from NASA and were able to create and add whatever they wanted, he said.

“My team built a rover and we were able to control it using a PlayStation 4 gaming wheel through a Bluetooth module. It was also able to stream video and show us whatever it saw,” Vazquez said.

Wong said he was impressed with the students and how they needed little help when working on their projects.

“There were only a few times where I needed to give input and help out, but what they created was amazing and they were an amazing group,” Wong said.

Students had the summer to complete their projects but managed to work through their difficulties.

“It was hectic having really long nights and there were times where I just wanted to give up (building the robot). But I kept trying. It took about a month and a half to build our robot,” computer science major Monty Saengsavang said.

They built their robots in the Physics Lab on campus and at their homes.

Saengsavang said one of his favorite parts of the project was when their robot started to work properly with no complications.

“Seeing it work without any problems was great, everyone was really excited to see it, being able to code and see it move in real life rather than a computer screen was exciting,” Saengsavang said.

When the groups finished their projects at the end of the program students were brought to NASA in Silicon Valley to show off the final result.

“NASA paid for a bus so we could visit its facility and we got to present our projects to a panel and we answered questions and people could test out our robot,” Vazquez said.

“I gained a lot of experience. It seems hard at first but eventually you get it. It’s a really rewarding experience and I do plan on doing it again,” Saengsavang said.

Ideas for the 2016 summer’s project are already coming to mind.

“Maybe next time I’ll make something aerial, something I couldn’t make this time around. I’ll have to see,” Vazquez said.

Since the program was funded for two years, students will be able to return as well as new students will be able to sign up for the program next summer.