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April 20, 2004

Global Warming
Student Team 

A quartet of Calvin College engineering majors scored an impressive coup last month when they were selected to present their senior design project at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Fellows Meeting.

The students - Joel Eigege (Jos, Nigeria), Ken Van Dyken (Hudsonville), Paul Sokomba (Jos, Nigeria) and Dan Mouw (Jenison) - are developing an instrument which would fly on stratospheric balloons and gather data about global warming. This balloon instrument would provide more accurate measurements of thermal energy leaving the Earth than existing satellite-based instruments, improved data which could be used to develop better predictions about global warming.

But things got even better for the students this month when they learned their project has received further funding from NASA.

And while the amount might be modest (it's likely to amount to about $500) Calvin professor of engineering Matt Heun says the prestige of funding is far more important than the actual dollars.

"This is a big deal," says Heun, who prior to coming to Calvin worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Scientifically, this is a really significant effort and Calvin could have a hand in developing an instrument that provides answers to one of the biggest questions facing humanity at this time. Granted, the monetary amount is not huge. But, it brings national recognition for Calvin College."

At their presentation last month, Heun says, the students had an audience of about 50 "forward-thinking NASA folks."

Adds Heun: "It was a great opportunity and the students did very well in describing their concept and talking with the NASA folks. Personally, I was very proud of them and the way they
handled themselves professionally. And, it was a great educational experience for them to hear all the exciting futuristic concepts. We don't know which, if any, of the concepts discussed at the meeting will be implemented in the future. But, if any are, the students will be able to say that they heard about it long before anyone else! It was great stuff."

One example, says Heun, of the educational component of the meetings came when the attendees this year were briefed by Jim Garvin, NASA's head scientist for Mars.

"His talk," says Heun, "was delayed by one day due to his participation in the press conference that announced evidence for past liquid water at Mars. It was fabulous for the students and me to hear the details of the scientific findings from the person who was right in the thick of it."

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is an organization whose mandate is the discovery of new concepts for space exploration and insertion of relevant technologies into NASA's strategic plans for further development. The Fellows meeting is the place where everyone working on NIAC concepts (the Fellows) gathers for presentations on the status of their studies.

Heun says the concepts range from the wild to the interesting, but all of them have a basis in reality. In fact, NIAC has a science panel that is comprised of several prominent NASA and ex-NASA folks (including the ex-head of the NASA Mars Program, Donna Shirley). The science panel reviews all proposed concepts, throws out the science fiction, and selects only a fraction of the proposed concepts for funding for concept development.

In addition to their primary activities, NIAC also runs a "NIAC Student Visions of the Future" (NSVFP) program that encourages undergraduate students to develop concepts for space exploration.

The Calvin students' poster was selected as one of four from a dozen student entries for the NSVFP this year. The other students with poster presentations were from Harvard, LSU, and the University of Washington. NIAC paid for travel and accommodations to the meeting.

During the meeting NIAC's science panel reviewed the student posters. Based on that review, the balloon radiometer concept was selected for further development and funding.

As part of the engineering curriculum at Calvin, all seniors are required to take part in a year-long course called "senior design" in which the seniors break into teams, usually by their engineering concentration, and select a project to work on throughout the year. The project is meant to be challenging and is intended to help the students experience what life will be like working at a company a year after graduation.

All of the Calvin student senior design teams will unveil its research for the general public from 4:30-6 pm on Saturday, May 8 in the Calvin Engineering Building.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)