As discussed previously, CubeSats were first conceived as a hands-on education tool allowing students to design and test small satellites and develop space missions. This teaching tool has now spread to many different universities, especially those with aerospace and similar engineering departments.
This rapid adoption of active and hands-on learning techniques is consistent with a trend in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines away from lecture-based teaching toward alternative teaching models that show enhanced learning outcomes. Compared to lecture-based learning, average examination scores of students with hands-on approaches are higher. According to Freeman et al. (2014), “average examination scores improved by about 6 percent in active learning sections, and . . . students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail [their classes] than were students in classes with active learning.”1 There has been particular focus on team-based, hands-on, active-learning techniques, which provide opportunities for students to interact with complex problems—like the design and operation of a space mission—and to do so as a multifunctional team. These engaged and team-based learning techniques have a positive impact on retention of students in STEM fields. Such a net increase of STEM graduates was one of the top recommendations of the 2010 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 and a matter of national competitiveness.2
One of the most challenging concepts to teach in aerospace engineering is the interdependent subsystems and systems that make a successful space mission. Even though there are textbooks3 on the issue, active engagement in system development is essential for a young scientist or engineer to understand how their work fits into a greater whole. With few exceptions, the active development of a space system is generally beyond the range of opportunities offered by academia and can only be experienced through internship in industry. CubeSats offer an alternative that has the benefits of typically shorter development lifetimes, a reduced set of requirements due to smaller system complexity, shorter overall mission life, and typically a higher level of acceptable risk for the mission.
1 S. Freeman, S.L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M.K. Smith, N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M.P. Wenderoth, 2014, Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(23):8410-8415.
2 National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, 2010, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.
3 Space Technology Library, 1999, Space Mission Analysis and Design, 3rd edition. Microcosm Press, El Segundo, Calif., and Kluwer Academic Publishers, The Netherlands.
Currently, within U.S. universities more than a thousand students per year graduate with some educational experience on a CubeSat project. This number of students is an estimate by the committee that is based on self-reported numbers of nearly 50 different universities collected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Defense (DOD), with the assumption of approximately 30 students per university. The total number of participating students is almost certainly larger as more universities engage as part of the 52 NASA Space Grant Consortia,4 which also includes some secondary school participation. Furthermore, elementary school students can build a simple communication system with the Robert Twiggs’ CricketSat development kit, originally designed to be flown as balloon experiments.5
U.S. Air Force
One of the first education-focused satellite development programs was the University Nanosatellite Program (UNP), a joint program of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1999. To date, the program has funded more than 32 small satellite and CubeSat missions. Starting primarily with micro- or nanosatellites, UNP missions have followed the trend of terrestrial-based electronics described in Chapter 2: they have shrunk in size while increasing in capability (missions have now moved from mostly 50 kg satellites to nano- and picosatellites or CubeSats). The primary objective of this program is educational, in particular in systems engineering and overall engineering workforce development. It has been described as supporting the technical development of the industrial aerospace workforce both in military schools and in a broader educational community. The secondary objective of this program is technology—the development of innovative, low-cost technologies of relevance to DOD. The tertiary objective of this program is university development: for example, through support of space hardware laboratories. During its program lifetime, approximately 5,000 students have been actively involved in educational programs offered by the nanosatellite program; a snapshot of the most recent funding round is provided in Table 3.1. The results are self-reported by 10 of the participating universities during 2013-2015 and are given as examples of the effects of the UNP. During 2013-2015, the program primarily benefited undergraduate students but has also seen impacts at the graduate level, indicated by a number of Ph.D. dissertations.
The UNP program is designed around 10 scheduled milestones mandatory for all participants, which include 6 design reviews, and 3 skill-building events with a focus on education and team development. The milestones follow the design cycle generally used for space payloads, such as system concept reviews, system requirement reviews, preliminary design review, and critical design review. Furthermore, the complete design is analyzed in a proto-qualification review and, finally, a flight competition review. A critical part of this review process is that students are present at all reviews conducted by external reviewers, and they also are the authors and owners of the design documentation and design analyses.
The UNP is currently funded at approximately $1.25 million per year through both awards to universities and the program office, which is responsible for program execution, mission assurance testing (i.e., environmental stress screening) and launch coordination. Although a large number of mission concepts are developed through UNP, the high level of competition and limited funds typically allow for only one mission to be selected to move forward throughout the entire program. However, for the latest round of competition, the program has been restructured to select as many missions as met the maturity and other criteria, resulting in 6 of the 10 schools moving into later phases of the program. Of the initial missions to reach orbit (one was lost to a launch failure), all three met minimum mission success. During 2016 and 2017, UNP is scheduled to launch eight student-built satellites through the Space Test Program (three microsats and five CubeSats).
4 NASA, “About the Space Grant Program,” http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/programs/national/spacegrant/about/index.html.
TABLE 3.1 Examples of the Educational Impact of the University Nanosat Program-Funded Nanosats at 10 of the Participating Universities (2013-2015)
|Undergraduate students||306||Ph.D. dissertations||3|
|Graduate students||34||Master theses||20|
|All students||340||Journal publications||7|
|Presentations and posters||75|
SOURCE: Personal communication from David Voss, program manager, University Nanosatellite Program, to Thomas Zurbuchen, January 2016.
National Science Foundation
Since 2008, the NSF Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences has funded CubeSats (Figure 3.1) focused on the advancement of science in space weather and also the educational benefits to participants. A 2013 report of the program characterizes those benefits as follows: “They allow students, through hands-on work on real, exciting, end-to-end projects, to develop the necessary skills and experience needed to succeed in STEM careers. CubeSat projects are also an effective tool to broaden the participation amongst underrepresented groups in STEM research and education. The projects stimulate widespread excitement and involve a uniquely diverse set of skills and interest. Therefore they appeal to a broader range of participants than more traditional science and engineering projects.”6
The response of the atmospheric and geospace sciences communities has been significant. Since 2008, 5 NSF CubeSat competitions have been carried out, and 15 missions have been funded for about $900,000 per mission over a 3-year development period. Throughout its activity from 2008-2015, the program was supported by approximately $15.6 million. The program remains competitive, receiving an average of 25 proposals for each of the calls, but typically there is only enough funding to select two or three investigations per call. Besides a thorough proposal review, requirements dictated by launch acceptance, and minimal prescriptions for project management (testing, review, documentation, etc.), each team is free to implement their educational and management processes. The educational content, therefore, varies widely depending on the experience of a participating university and the availability of experienced mentors or public-private partnerships that can support university teams during the satellite design-build-test process.
According to the NSF report on the program7 and reports from various participating universities, CubeSat developments tend to be appropriately sized for undergraduate and graduate students to work on for 1 to 3 years, with individual subsystem team sizes typically being less than 5 students and the full mission team sizes typically being less than 30. According to the report, there is particular interest among engineering students because CubeSat programs are likely the only way for students to be involved with a spacecraft that will actually fly. Anecdotally, over half of students working on CubeSats have gone on to positions focused on the aerospace industry. Some NSF-funded projects have made a deliberate effort to include minorities, thus broadening the impact of this research and educational program.
The curricular context of CubeSat design activities at universities varies from case to case. Many universities do not have a formal CubeSat course curriculum; instead, the CubeSat projects tend to be integrated as student projects within system engineering or spacecraft design courses. Students are often part of a multidisciplinary program or are in aerospace engineering or other majors. As is common with most university CubeSat student projects, undergraduate and graduate students put into practice their classroom learning through direct participation in the challenges associated with spaceflight hardware design, fabrication, testing, and operations in space. Some individual students spend multiple years engaged in CubeSat development while being mentored by professional engineers and scientists.
6 NSF and NASA, 2013, National Science Foundation (NSF) CubeSat-Based Missions for Geospace and Atmospheric Research Annual Report, NP-2013-12-097-GSFC, Arlington, Va., http://www.nsf.gov/geo/ags/uars/cubesat/nsf-nasa-annual-report-cubesat-2013.pdf.
Approximately 60 percent of NASA-funded CubeSat programs also involve universities, often overlapping with the set of universities funded through AFRL or NSF. Although educational objectives are most often not primary to the NASA programs, both NASA program officials as well as participating institutions often name them as an essential outcome. In addition to university student projects, NASA centers and the private sector use CubeSats to provide valuable hands-on training for the future leaders in engineering, science, and management. This experience is akin to hands-on training from working with rocket and balloon experiments, which provide
experience with the full cycle of concept and requirement definitions that balance scientific goals and engineering constraints, detailed design, reviews, fabrication, test, launch, and data analysis. In addition to hands-on training of NASA center staff, many of the NASA technology fellowship students have the opportunity to work on a CubeSat project. On these smaller space-hardware projects, almost everyone is involved in hardware development and testing. This is in contrast with large satellite projects, where most engineers, scientists, and managers do not have the opportunity to ever touch the hardware because only NASA-certified technicians are permitted to handle flight hardware.
Every university, industry, and agency-based team that spoke to the committee stressed the benefits of education and training using CubeSats that include, but are not limited to, providing hands-on hardware and software development experience, education about satellite system engineering and technology, and cross-disciplinary science and engineering training for students and early-career professionals. These educational programs help to attract students into STEM fields and retain them. Furthermore, CubeSat programs provide training opportunities for young scientists and engineers in NASA centers and the industrial sector, similar to balloon and rocket programs.
Conclusion: The teaching and training of satellite technology, engineering, and space science provided by CubeSat programs are of high educational and leadership training value to participating educational institutions and for early career scientists and engineers.