20 yrs of undergraduate research

The confines of research labs are no longer attractive to just professors and graduate students. Dabbling in research has now also become a part of the undergraduate experience. For Ross Finman, Ray Barsa, and Eric Blood, the Lunar X PRIZE project was the perfect way to get involved in research. As stated in the website of the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the X PRIZE is an international competition where participating teams will compete to send a robot to the moon, and transmit images of the moon back to Earth. The winning team will receive a prize of $30 million.

Barsa, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, said, “It was the beginning of my freshman year when I heard about the X PRIZE. [I realized that] if I were to do research in anything, that would be it.” The journey started with a class that the three took called Advanced Mobile Robot Development, which eventually led to their plunge into full-fledged research. Finman, a sophomore ECE major, believes that as a first-year, there was no better way to be involved on campus. “I’ve learned more from this class than I have from any other class [or even] any combination of classes [that I’ve taken],” Finman said.

While most would believe that participating in a project mostly run by graduate students would be intimidating in the first year of college, Finman and Barsa never felt left out in the group. In fact, they both believe that joining the group and interacting with the other group members was a great learning experience.

Another factor that made the two feel comfortable in the group was the fact that the project leader, robotics professor Red Whittaker, was always very supportive of bringing in new talent. “[Whittaker] doesn’t care if you’re a freshman as long as you get the job done. That’s one of the great things he does. As long as you have the ambition, you can do anything in this group,” Finman said. Working with the group was also a great experience for Blood, a junior mechanical engineering major. He later applied for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and continued his work throughout the summer.

To apply for the grant, Blood had to write a research proposal. He also has to present at the Meeting of the Minds, an undergraduate research symposium held each spring. “Most students here are very driven and if you give them a goal, a lot of students will just go and do it, and will do it well,” Blood said. The SURF provides such a concrete goal that students can focus on. “I also like the freedom that was given with this grant. It was kind of like, ‘We trust you, your research proposal looks good, go show us what you can do,’” Blood said.
Although Barsa and Finman did not apply for the SURF, they also continued working on the project over the summer. All three worked on different aspects of the project. Blood focused on dust mitigation systems for the rover, Barsa worked on the mobility of the rover and helped in its overall design, and Finman was a part of the testing group and conducted a number of field tests.
Working on the project was no easy task. “[A lot of times] we stayed until the wee hours of the morning in the MechE cluster going over sketches of what we would be doing,” Finman said. However, as Barsa later mentioned, staying up late at night and working on the project was perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the project.

The sheer amount of knowledge they received was very rewarding. Barsa believes that the intensity of the project helped him learn a number of skills from the graduate students. “In this year alone, I think I’ve picked up on a lot of the skills that they’ve [graduate students] picked up over the last couple of years,” he said.

Finman plans to continue working with the group and is now one of the heads of the testing team. Barsa, along with a few other members of the group, recently received a grant from NASA. “I’m working with a group to study how we can robotically prepare lunar sites for when NASA gets [to the moon in] 2018 or 2019,” Barsa said. Blood, though still interested in the group, also wants to explore the field of aeronautics.