Junior Noah Klugman loves technology - especially after his 10-week summer Space Grant at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where he helped design test software for the next Mars rover.
But he also finds deeply gratifying this fact: the rover will make its way to the Red Planet by looking at the stars around it - a simple pre-tech practice as old as human wonder.
"Guided by blips of starlight passing over a sensor," Klugman ponders, shaking his head. "No matter how sophisticated your technology, the best way to get someplace is by observing your environment."
At JPL he worked under the mentorship of one of the mission managers for the current Mars rover - current, meaning that it's crawling around up there right now. That is, when it's not stuck, which it was during Klugman's internship. He witnessed the team try to get it unstuck - remotely, of course - by modeling the problem here and developing a solution.
"Very, very cool," says Klugman. Although those words do scant justice to the ineffable JPL experience. At the very least, one needs to add "crazy" and "insane," so Klugman does. Conversations about 15-foot robots or human habitats on the moon are, well, typical. "Everyone is on the edge of exploration," he says. "They have a responsibility to keep moving the edge by taking on more risky and ambitious projects. Very cool and very crazy!"
Perhaps only a newbie adventurephile like him would volunteer to write a computer script that would auto-generate a specific type of software test. If successful, the project would automate certain types of busywork and redirect hundreds of hours of human labor toward "moving the edge." Sounds great, but the "old hands" at JPL were skeptical that Klugman could do it. When he did, he was promptly offered a one-year co-op position, which he immediately accepted. Unfortunately, expanding edges are budget tethered, and the position was lost to cost reduction measures.
Klugman hopes to return to JPL next summer and then stay for a year. "You don't turn down that offer," he smiles. This plan depends, in part, on changing his Kalamazoo College major from computer science (a four-year program) to 3-2 engineering, under which a student spends three years at Kalamazoo College and two years in an engineering program at another school (usually University of Michigan or Washington University at St. Louis), afterwards earning degrees in physics (Kalamazoo College) and engineering (the other school).
If Klugman successfully switches majors, the year at JPL would fall between the three and the two. Betting against him might suggest a poor understanding of probability, not to mention his passion and persistence.
"I've been bothering everyone I can," he smiles. The change of major would mean giving up study abroad, but Klugman lived in India for three months after high school. He also managed the information technology needs of an Santa Fe-based environmental law firm, so he's had a varied career internship experience.
Should this turn out to be his final year at "K," it will not be solely occupied with change-of-major matters. Enter (or, more accurately, re-enter): Make Stuff, the student organization Klugman founded that employs its hands to earn its name. Last spring the group "eight or
"'K's a place of a hundred SIPs. I've done many already!"more math and physics types" made and launched a high altitude hot air balloon. It's successful maiden voyage (and swansong) ended in nearby Marshall, Michigan, but not before it reached its near space altitude goal of 90,000 feet and rendered some extraordinary aerial photography.
This fall the group (so far mostly Klugman) is making a remote controlled model airplane with the abilities to stabilize itself in the air and travel to GPS coordinates. Klugman had hoped this Make Stuff project would attract a more diverse group and include, say, artists who wanted to make plane-project-related art, and writers who wanted to smith project-related words.
"Anyone who wants to make things would come together," he says. "We'd have a centralized budget and run the club like a company with different project teams. What a way to mesh disciplines!"
Alas, like JPL, Make Stuff copes with budget exigencies. At Student Commission's student organization budget advocacy session some expressed skepticism about how Make Stuff might be perceived by students.
Says Klugman: "One commissioner wryly wondered what we'd do if a student showed up who wanted to make a hotdog, and I thought: 'Wow, redesign or make a new hotdog...how cool would that be!
"When you use your hands and mind you get to experience small successes," he adds, "and then you gain confidence to make something more challenging."
Gee, won't he, especially, miss the SIP if he leaves at the end of the year?
"'K's a place of a hundred SIPs, and not just in the senior year. I've done many already. Experiments galore."