With New Programming Skills, Students Contribute to Space Knowledge


What could come of an eight-week collaboration with a U.S. Coast Guard Academy lecturer and a group of students who, late in the game, found their summer plans in disarray? Potentially, the launch of a small plasma data-collecting satellite. 

As part of the SEAS 2020 Summer Design/Research Scholars, Richard Freeman, an assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, is mentoring four students in basics in coding and Arduino skills.  

“It started with a student who had an opportunity for him this summer that went away, due to the pandemic,” said Freeman, who taught Introduction to Computing for Engineers and Scientists in the spring. “At about the same time, SEAS Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski put out a call for mentors for the summer. So the two kind of clicked for me.”

It also clicked for Angelica Pelcastre ‘23. A summer course on Python programming that she planned to take at her local community college was cancelled. Then, she got an email from Yale SEAS about the summer program, which was designed specifically around the unique circumstances that students face this year. Of the several choices, she decided to go with programming.

“Because it’s just four of us and Dr. Freeman, it’s almost really one-on-one. And I'm definitely learning a lot - it's even gotten me to reconsider my major to computer science or electrical engineering,” she said. “Now that we're working with the Arduino, coding and working with the wires, I realized I really do enjoy this a lot more than I thought.”

For the first part of the program, the students learned advanced C programming. Now they’re applying those skills to programming an MPU9250 sensor, which has a gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer. This has the long-term goal of being incorporated into a ThinSat - a small satellite about the fifth the size of a CubeSat - which Freeman is working on with physicists at the Coast Guard Academy. With the goal of collecting data on plasma, Freeman said the ThinSat is expected to launch next year.

For a more immediate and Earth-bound result, the students – who are all working remotely - are also considering using the sensor to each build their own self-balancing robots.

Ryan Smithers ‘23 signed up when he learned about the fellowship in April. 

“Once I heard about this fellowship it was kind of a no-brainer,” he said, adding that he is particularly interested in the intersection between mechanical engineering and computer science. “I'd say what this fellowship is going to do is inspire a new group of students to start to work on real problems.” 

Another student, Casey Tonnies ‘23 - whose original plans also fell through due to COVID-19 - chose the program because it was designed to teach coding and didn't assume prior knowledge. “This seemed like an ideal opportunity to learn,” she said. “I also liked having the goal of learning how to code for ThinSats, because it brings coding into a real situation and not just a problem set.”