Boise State University

Idaho college students are nationally competitive and NASA-ready

Boise State’s microgravity team tests its specimen-collecting tool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 2016.
Boise State’s microgravity team tests its specimen-collecting tool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in 2016. Provided by Boise State University

When the subject of astronauts and space missions comes up, not many people’s thoughts turn to Idaho. But Idaho students are increasingly applying and being accepted to summer internship programs with NASA, thanks to efforts from our state’s universities to strengthen educational relationships with the agency.

Higher-education institutions across Idaho are united in efforts to push the boundaries of STEM education into space — and even beyond it. This summer, at least 24 Idaho undergraduate and graduate students were placed in NASA internships.

Boise State University junior Nicholas Chapa is interning at the Kennedy Space Center, where he’s working in an augmented/virtual reality lab to help improve space simulations. Of 66 national applicants, the computer science major was one of two selected to work in the lab.

“These are life-changing experiences,” said Susie Johnson, the program manager of the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium, based at the University of Idaho. “I’m already getting emails from students saying, ‘This is so awesome!’ 

Johnson manages the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium grant. The money helps students in Idaho carry out research and pursue professional paths in STEM fields, and it helps Idaho researchers collaborate with each other and NASA researchers. This includes funding student internships with NASA, if the agency cannot fully fund an intern otherwise.

Universities across Idaho are doing their part to make students NASA competitive.

Student teams from the University of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene University recently won grants for NASA’s Undergraduate Student Instrument Projects, which is an opportunity to develop an Earth or space payload to fly on a NASA suborbital vehicle, such as a balloon or suborbital rocket.

Under the direction of faculty, the University of Idaho’s team, the TATERTOTS, has spent the last year developing two payloads to be launched on a high-altitude balloon — one for imagery and the other to catch microbes traveling in the jet stream.

They are also developing a third payload that would launch on tethered balloons. They want to see if they can develop a low-cost local-positioning system using balloons — which could be instrumental in environments like Mars, where there is no Global Positioning System to help astronauts navigate alien terrain.

Here at Boise State, we have retired astronauts Barbara Morgan and Steve Swanson to thank in large part for the growing student interest in space.

A former NASA astronaut and Idaho educator, Morgan joined Boise State in 2008 as a distinguished educator in residence. During her time on campus, she provided vision and leadership to K-12 STEM teachers throughout Idaho and acted as a mentor to science and engineering students across the university.

Swanson became a professor of the practice at Boise State in February 2014 before becoming distinguished educator in residence in 2015. While he has hung up his astronaut suit, he isn’t slowing down. At Boise State, he took over the microgravity program, which challenges teams of students to write a NASA proposal, build tools to meet specific space challenges — like robots that can walk in space — and then write a final report to NASA.

Swanson turned this program into a vertically integrated project, or VIP, meaning Boise State students from all disciplines can be part of this long-term research experience and share their knowledge with local schools and communities through outreach education.

He leads another VIP course in robotics, is conducting research for a $1 million National Science Foundation grant called STEM+C aimed at project-based learning for elementary students, and is the adviser for Boise State’s Space Broncos, a student organization open to all majors with an interest in space and NASA.

Under Swanson’s guidance, multidisciplinary teams of Boise State students have been accepted into NASA’s prestigious Micro-g Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Team (Micro-g NExT) program, held at the Johnson Space Center, for eight consecutive years.

Micro-g NExT challenges undergraduates to design, build and test a tool or device that addresses an authentic, current space-exploration problem. The overall experience includes hands-on engineering design, test operations and educational/public outreach.

Last year, the Boise State Micro-g NExT team built a tool to help astronauts collect rocks on a future asteroid mission. The team then traveled to Houston to test the device in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab.

Thanks to the hard work of educators, researchers, and professionals like Swanson, the sky is no longer the limit for Idaho students.

Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly.