2020-09-04: Student ThinSat Research Summer Camp for Hampton Roads High School Students

The Student ThinSat Research Summer (STRS) Camp was held virtually from August 3 – August 14, 2020. The event was sponsored by a Virginia Space Grant Consortium Innovate Program grant with faculty and student instructors from Computer Science and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Old Dominion University. 

STRS 2020 - Flyer
STRS 2020 - Flyer
The STRS camp focused on providing opportunities for integration of coding skills with engineering Standards of Learning for students in a project-based learning environment using ThinSatThe Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (Virginia Space), as a part of their commitment to K- 12 STEM outreach, has initiated a program called ThinSat, inserting batches of approximately 60 picosatellites into extremely low Earth orbits up to twice a year. ThinSats are launched utilizing the second stage orbit insertion capabilities of their Antares launch system as part of regularly scheduled International Space Station resupply flights.

ThinSat - Picosatellite used in the program
ThinSat - Picosatellite used in the program

Twiggs Space Lab FlatSat development board
Twiggs Space Lab FlatSat development board

This program was conducted by Dr. Sampath Jayarathna (@OpenMaze) from Computer Science, and Dr. Stacie Ringleb, and Dr. Bob Ash from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Old Dominion University, who have expertise working with python coding, satellite development, deployment and satellite-based outreach activities. The event also included sessions conducted by Bhanuka MahanamaYasith Jayawardana and Gavindya Jayawardana from WS-DL group. In support of the sessions, several Ph.D. students (Himarsha Jayanetti, Kritika Garg, and Md Sami Uddin) from the WS-DL research group also volunteered as teaching assistants. In addition, the camp also featured guest speakers from NASA Langley, Microsoft, Virginia Space, and Twiggs Spacelab.

The first week of the summer camp included various coding sessions with python including introduction to python, numerical operations, data handling, data pre-processing, and data visualization. This allowed students to have a basic understanding of the most widely used python libraries such as NumPy, Pandas, and Seaborn.
The first week also included an invited talk from Mr. Zachary Campbell from Virginia Space Authority. During the session, he shared his experiences during his time as a NASA intern, and current work as the ThinSat Program Lead at Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.

The second week of the camp started off with an invited talk by Dr. Cassandra Oduola, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence program manager at Microsoft. During the session, she shared her experiences in the fields of computer science, machine learning, and emerging areas of quantum computing.

During the second week of the camp, students were given with hands-on activities to help acclimate to the ThinSat environment and advanced concepts such as data wrangling, machine learning, and text processing. The sessions included classification and clustering techniques using Scikit-learn and Weka Explorer and Knowledge Flow, and ThinSat programming where students used Arduino IDE for developing, and deploying code for ThinSat.
In addition, guest speakers from Twiggs Space Lab (developers of FlatSat picosatellites) Mr. Matt Craft and Dr. Jose Garcia provided introductions to the ThinSat development board, which the students utilized for their final project to design and carryout experiments. Sub-systems of ThinSat, types of sensors, and types of communication interfaces were discussed during the session.

During the second week Dr. Megan Chandrana joined the summer camp to share her experience as a Research Engineer at NASA Langley.  Students were excited to listen to her past experience as a college intern at NASA, and her path towards becoming a full-time scientist at NASA.

In addition to the regular lectures, students were teamed up, to design and experiment using the ThinSat environment. Initially students brainstormed project ideas which were then shortlisted based on feasibility and peer feedback within groups. Top ideas included,
  • UV light comparison inside a house (data collected on balcony, inside close to a window with and without blinds)
  • Correlation between temperature and humidity at different locations
  • Temperature and pressure measured in a vacuum
  • IR and temperature sensor to look at light dispersion
Out of all the interesting experiments proposed by the students, experiments involving lighting (Luminous and IR), temperature, and humidity were selected. For collecting data for their experiments, students developed code to be run on the ThinSat development board. Then they applied their coding and data science skills acquired during the camp to experiment with the data collected.

Students utilized the Google Colab (Colaboratory) to write, execute code, data analysis and to share and document their project activities.

At the final day of the camp, students presented their findings of the team projects. It was really impressive to see that majority of students learned how to code for the very first time, applied their knowledge to design, and experiment with ThinSat hardware, collected data and used advanced concepts like machine learning and visualizations using Matplotlib and Seaborn to express their analysis.  

The summer camp had a tremendous success with positive remarks from the student participants.
I really enjoyed doing the project and collaborating with my peers. Many of the instructors were also impressionable as well.
It was a great learning experience that taught us how to code in Python and how to understand and organize data using it
I had no experience with coding, now I can use this information for further data analysis in the future.
Despite the fact the the camp was virtual due to COVID-19, students seems to really enjoyed the camp activities. 
Everything went well with this camp. Despite the fact that we had to go virtual because of COVID-19, the camp managed to be just as enjoyable as it would have been in person.

Overall everything went smoothly though I wished that things were in person.

Overall, the STRS camp was very good and I learn a lot from it.

I would do it again!
-- Bhanuka Mahanama (@mahanama94)