College Students Prove They Have ‘MINDS’ for NASA Competition
College students from Texas and Massachusetts were named senior and underclassmen grand champions, respectively, in the Minority University Research and Education Project’s (MUREP) 2023 NASA MINDS competition. Retired NASA astronaut Winston Scott presented at the virtual awards ceremony for NASA MINDS, which stands for MUREP Innovative New Designs for Space.
Taking home the senior title was the University of North Texas’ “Send That Rover Over,” focusing on artificial intelligence-operated swarm robots called Small Homogeneous Landing Field Handlers, or SHLFH (pronounced shelf). The SHLFH rovers provide analysis on landing fields by using a statistical method to locate the safest landing field from multiple potential options.
Bunker Hill Community College’s “The Gaia Initiative” was the winner in the underclassmen category. Their invention analyzes the Moringa Oleifera plant – using an automated system to maintain it – to produce a nutritious and resilient food source with a short sow-to-harvest timeline. Collecting such data would assist in advancing food resources that will benefit future human space travelers.
The winning teams received a complimentary trip to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for behind-the-scenes tours with experts, as well as a full day at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Forty teams representing 34 minority-serving institutions – including seven two-year schools – from 14 states participated in this year’s third annual challenge. Led by a faculty advisor, each team was tasked with designing and building technologies needed for NASA’s Artemis missions. The teams received $1,500 to be used in the build of their design, and the faculty received a $1,000 stipend. The multi-semester competition is funded by MUREP.
NASA judges selected 14 teams (nine senior and five underclassmen) for the finalist round, held May 9-10. There, teams were able to demonstrate their hardware during a live, 20-minute virtual presentation. At each presentation conclusion, judges asked questions and then briefly convened. The two grand champions, along with second- and third-place finishers, were announced May 12.
For many of the participants, it was their first time working in a team environment as part of a space-related project.
NASA MINDS is the creation of Theresa Martinez, a project manager at Kennedy. Martinez, who has been involved in other student-involved events at the center, geared the competition toward Artemis, but kept the technology wide open.
“It’s a broad-based approach,” Martinez explained. “The thought is, ‘Come to us with your brilliant ideas.’ I wanted to let the creativity flow.”
Martinez knew that NASA competitions traditionally are well received by minority-serving institutions. Keeping this in mind, she set up the format in a way that would not exclude schools that faced fundraising challenges.
These efforts produced a multiplicity of quality projects for NASA judges to review, including dust mitigation, multiple robot and rover designs, solar arrays, food sustainability, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing using a variety of materials.
Martinez knows firsthand about the power of opportunity. She was the first Hispanic female engineer hired at Kennedy. She also was the first in her family to earn a four-year degree, taking an unorthodox route to college graduation at age 29. From her current role in NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, she often discusses her background with minority students.
For more information on NASA MINDS, visit https://nasaminds.org/2023-nasa-minds-rules-and-rubrics/.