PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - MARCH 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 7
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YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - SURF projects include testing machinery for the DARPA robotic challenge, and left, researching sand dunes in Death Valley. - PHOTOS: Left: By Steve Hostler; Right: By Sarah May

By Pierre Home-Douglas

TACKLING THE MYSTERY OF SAND DUNES, A 175-MILE ROBOTIC RACE, AND EXTRAPLANATORY ROVER DESIGN, UNDERGRADUATES AT CALTECH ARE SURFING THEIR WAY TO INNOVATIVE RESEARCH.

It sounds like every undergraduate engineering student's dream: doing groundbreaking research on a robotic vehicle capable of completing a snaky 175-mile course through the desert. An added bonus: helping your school pick up a check for $2 million as winner of the Grand Challenge race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For 20-year-old computer science student Jeremy Gillula, this opportunity was made possible by a unique program at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena that pairs science and engineering students with mentors in Caltech's engineering department and at NASA's nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As part of Caltech's Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF), students are expected to find a mentor with whom they can work and then define and develop a project. Their research projects are reviewed by a faculty committee, which then recommends which students will be awarded the fellowship research and a stipend of $5,000. At the end of the 10-week-long program, students submit a technical paper then deliver an oral presentation at a symposium modeled on a professional technical meeting.

Gillula had already worked the previous summer and throughout the school year on a computer code that would speed up Caltech's entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge. The Challenge is a major-league field test intended to accelerate research and development in autonomous ground vehicles that will help save American lives on the battlefield. Vehicles participating in the 2005 race, which will run this October, can only use publicly available navigation systems like GPS and cannot be controlled remotely by an operator. Caltech's entry, a souped-up Ford van affectionately known as Alice, will have a pair of mounted cameras to triangulate the position of objects in front of it. Gillula's work involved making the stereo-vision code faster and more accurate to enable the vehicle to complete the obstacle-filled course in under the 10-hour maximum limit. In the 2004 race, none of the 15 vehicles that entered the race from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., made it farther than 8 miles from the starting line. "I knew from the beginning of last summer what needed to be done," Gillula explains, "I knew what the flaws were in the code. I knew how to fix them. I just needed a good 10 weeks. SURF gave me the chance to do it."

Gillula submitted his proposal to mechanical engineering professor Richard Murray, a cosponsor of Caltech's entry who has worked with more than 30 SURF students over the past 12 years. Murray says that SURF is "all about teaching undergraduate students what research is like and learning along with them about new ideas. It's much closer to the type of teaching you do with graduate students as they're working on their theses." He adds, "Of course, the level is different with graduate students, but Caltech undergraduates are incredibly bright. They are constantly surprising me with new insights and approaches."

Murray met each week with Gillula and four other SURF students involved in the Grand Challenge to discuss overall activities for the team. He checked in with Gillula several times over the 10 weeks to get updates on his progress. The two then spent five days in the desert with the rest of the Caltech team testing out the vehicle.

For Murray, who also serves as chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Gillula's SURF project is a good example of a student tackling a problem that needed solving but had eluded other researchers. "He's done a great job of investigating what the possibilities are, trying them out, and keeping careful data to see which ones really worked. His efforts over the summer are definitely going to make a big difference in our algorithms for the next race." And for Gillula, SURF is "an incredible hands-on experience. In the classroom you learn the theory. You might get a guest lecture who comes in and says, ‘Here's what we do in industry,' but when you get to do it yourself, you learn so much more—the ins and outs of every detail of the system."

SURF grew out of a grant from Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, head of Universal Pictures and a member of Caltech's board of trustees. In the mid 1970s, flush with the success of the film Jaws, Wasserman decided to endow a grant that would make a significant contribution to Caltech, a school that consistently ranks among the top engineering universities in the United States. A committee was formed to decide how the money should best be used, and eventually an undergraduate summer research program was designed that would allow students to pursue hands-on work under the guidance of professors and professionals.

Under the leadership of chemical engineering professor Fred Sher, SURF started in 1979 with 17 faculty members and 18 students. At the start, there were some professors who felt that undergraduates were more suited to classroom learning than serious research, but the quality of the students drawn to SURF and the breadth of their work turned cynics into believers. Any remaining doubts were finally allayed in 1995 with the launch of SURFSAT, a $3 million communications satellite created by a series of SURF students over the previous seven years. The probe was designed to test new ways to receive communications from distant planetary probes by way of NASA's Deep Space Network. But it was later adapted to help debug communications between the VLBI, a series of radio telescopes around the world that can be linked to operate as a single telescope, probing celestial mysteries like quasars and black holes.

JPL manager Joel Smith described this added use of SURFSAT as alone "worth its weight it gold." In the fall of 2004, nine years after launch, SURFSAT was still in operation, "a hugely and wildly successful run," says Carolyn Ash, director of student-faculty programs at Caltech. She says that SURF has helped change attitudes about undergraduate research at Caltech. "It's now deeply embedded in the culture here." In the summer of 2004, close to 400 students participated in SURF. Most were from Caltech's engineering department, but the program also attracts students from as far afield as Singapore, France, and India.

Students hit the ground running with SURF since they have already collaborated with their mentors and completed a research proposal before they begin work. "With a lot of other internships, the student shows up and everyone says, ‘Gee, we knew you were coming, but we're not ready yet'. With SURF, everyone is poised to go before the students arrive, so they can maximize the time spent in the program."

As is true of research in general, SURF projects don't always produce nice, neat answers or end up solving the problem that the student proposed. For Richard Murray, that's actually one of the advantages of SURF and why it fills a gap often left by graduate students. "Graduate students, by their very nature, don't want to go off on an avenue of research that may lead them into a dead end." Plus, he adds, some research work isn't "meaty" enough to warrant a graduate student's attention.

PUBLISHING PAPERS

Probing a sand dune. Below: Professor Melany Hunt, far left, with her students.Still, SURF projects are not simply "make-work" assignments. Some of the work done is undeniably groundbreaking. Senior electrical engineering student Lyle Chamberlain spent his 2003 SURF summer developing the control software that may help enable robotic vehicles traverse difficult terrain on other planets 10 to 20 years down the line. Chamberlain's mentor at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Terry Hunstberger, part of JPL's Mechanical and Robotics Technology Group, says he was impressed by how quickly Chamberlain came up to speed and made top-quality research contributions. "Once I got him started, he took off," Huntsberger says with a chuckle. His only regret was the length of the SURF project: "I wish it were longer. I'd like to have had him for six months." The two wrote a paper together that was accepted by the International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

"Paper publishing is definitely one of the best things about a SURF," Chamberlain enthuses. "I'm applying to grad school and I have four papers on my CV. That's very rare for an undergrad." In the summer of 2004, Chamberlain completed another SURF, adapting his work from the previous summer to help design a robotic vehicle with Caltech's Murray.

The work that one SURF student may perform can sometimes lead to fruition a year or more later. Mechanical engineering professor Melany Hunt observed this with a SURF student who built a probe during the summer of 2003 to take samples below the surface of sand dunes. The work is part of Hunt's efforts to unlock a centuries-old mystery: why certain large sand dunes around the world emit a deep, booming sound when the wind passes over them, a phenomenon that has been noted by travelers as far back as Marco Polo. She believes that the noise is the result of a damp, reflective layer about 6 feet down that causes the sound to reverberate back and forth between the surface and the denser layer of sand below. Getting samples from that wet level posed a challenge—and a suitable goal for a SURF project.

Nora DeDontney, then a junior majoring in geophysics and mechanical engineering, designed a 7-foot-long tube with another tube inside that served as a retractable collection basket—a "very clever design," according to Hunt. The trouble was, when they tried out the rod in September, the end of it buckled when it was hammered down the last few feet. "Nora was crushed," Hunt recalls. But the experience was far from a failure: "She learned a lot about strength of materials and all the other engineering aspects you have to think about when you build something like that—lessons you wouldn't necessarily get in a classroom."

Hunt meets regularly with her SURF students. "If they're having problems, you have to make sure you learn about them quickly and help them solve them. If they don't make progress, there's something they don't understand and they don't know where to go next; you have to get them past that hurdle."

Last summer, a SURF student did a redesign of the sampling rod and it worked flawlessly. "It hasn't given us a conclusive answer yet," says Hunt, "but it certainly supports our hypothesis about what is happening." Hunt says the work on sand dunes may have application for other geophysical flows like avalanches and the kinds of materials and fluids that petroleum companies are concerned with in pumping or drilling operations. Chalk up another success—for faculty and students—as part of Caltech's SURF program.

Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.

 

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THE MECHANICS OF A CAREER - By Thomas K. Grose
A CLICK AWAY - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
YOU CALL THIS SCHOOL? - By Pierre Home-Douglas
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