Georgia high school students design Mars rovers at virtual summer camp

Rovers and Research. The 2021 STEP Camp virtually hosted 21 Georgia high school students in a crash course focused on the engineering design process and thinking like an aerospace engineer. 

The Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering hosted 21 Georgia high school students, covering 10 different Georgia counties, as a part of the 2021 Science, Technology, and Engineering Pipeline (STEP) program, June 14 - July 1. 

Sponsored by Aerospace Systems Design Lab (ASDL), Georgia Space Grant Consortium, Lockheed Martin, and NASA University Leadership Initiative (ULI), the program challenges high school students to engineer solutions to real-world NASA missions and serves as a steppingstone to the world of engineering. This year’s camp also featured a presentation competition sponsored by Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X which awarded an Amazon Echo Show to Nikhil Dasari and Rossy Dang for creating the most enthusiastic and creative presentations.

Kelly Griendling

“STEP is a great opportunity for aspiring engineers to see the problems aerospace engineers are faced with and how we approach them through the design process,” said ASDL director Dimitri Mavris.

Each student received a rover kit, $50, and helpful mentors in the form of AE School students and research engineers.  Over the course of three weeks, students learned the engineering design process, assembled their base model rover, implemented their own rover modifications, and presented their work - all in a virtual setting.

“The idea is to give them the creative freedom to figure out what someone would need on Mars and to imagine themselves in the shoes of a future Mars explorer,” explained Kelly Griendling, STEP camp advisor and AE School lecturer.

Like last year’s STEP camp, students had to problem solve from home and without the convenience of the Yang Aero Maker Space’s 3D printers and supplies.

Georgia Tech undergraduate students and STEP mentors, Shay Vitale (AE) and Miguel Daly (ME) worked diligently in the Yang Aero Maker Space to design a base-model rover that the high school students could easily assemble and that was easy to ship.

Rover Kits. Four wheels, electrical wires, controllers, and PVC pipe were just some of the supplies students could use to make their rovers roam. 

After countless hours designing and troubleshooting, Vitale and Daly found a winning base-model and produced over 20 kits and mailed them to the students before the first week of camp.

AE graduate student Bijan Fazal also served as a fellow STEP mentor throughout the camp and coached students on how to present their work and craft a stellar presentation. 

“We spent the first week walking the students through assembling the robot and getting familiar with the electrical wiring and the remote control,” said Griendling.

STEP mentors and advisors walked them through the various parts of the rover, the intricacies of electrical wiring, and the selection of their modification. 

During the second week, students were challenged with making a modification to their rover that would make it more useful on Mars or something that could help future Mars explorers.

Some modifications included upgrading the wheels for better traction on Mars’ surface, solar panels for extended battery life, excavation equipment to test Mars’ soil, and weather sensing equipment.

Several students added cameras or baby monitors on their rovers to allow for live feed streaming and two-way communication. Lithia Springs High School senior, Hector Sanchez mounted a small camera onto his rover.

“It’s important to have a rover that can sense. Adding a small camera to a rover can be used to scout Mars’ surface, explore Mars’ terrain, and it’s important to limit human time outside,” explained the Georgia Tech hopeful.

Rusty the Rover. Designed
by Sarah Andrews

Sarah Andrews, a rising senior at Lanier High School in Sugar Hill, Georgia found out about the camp through her high school science teacher. Andrews hopes to become a Georgia Tech student and study aerospace engineering with the goal of working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“One thing that makes this camp different from others that I’ve attended is that I learned how each component works before putting them all together,” said Andrews.

“My favorite part of this camp was the ideation and design portion, where I was able to solve problems using creative solutions."

Andrews designed a separate compartment to hold soil samples for visual and chemical analysis. Her compartment design included an acrylic side to view collected samples and for easy access.

During the final week students presented their final rovers to their fellow campers, STEP sponsors, and Georgia Tech employees.

“The students did a fantastic job designing their rovers from home with expert guidance from the devoted program mentors and staff.  The student presentations showed their remarkable creativity and the skills they developed that will take them far in engineering and science,” said GSGC director and AE School associate chair Stephen Ruffin.

STEP administrators are hopeful that the 2022 camp will see a return to an on-campus experience, no matter the location STEP is a catalyst for aspiring engineers.



Kelsey Gulledge