Lake Park native Cody Elhard, a 2017 graduate of Lake Park-Audubon High School, wasn't even old enough to vote during the last presidential election. Only one of his three teammates at North Dakota State University has even reached the legal drinking age - and that, just barely.
Yet Elhard, who will turn 19 in January, and his three fellow undergraduates - all pursuing degrees in computer science at NDSU in Fargo - are in the process of building something that could have a dramatic impact on higher education in the United States.
Elhard, along with NDSU sophomore Devante Ball, junior Terrance Howard and freshman Nicholas Snell, is working to build a website that will allow those pursuing degrees in all four STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and other interested students to participate in space exploration projects through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), these four NDSU students are making a system to match students at other schools across the country up with JPL's scientists, which will allow them to participate in a variety of projects related to space exploration.
"We've had several groups of students work on projects with NASA centers, and JPL in particular," says NSDU Computer Science Assistant Professor Jeremy Straub, who is mentoring the effort. "In each instance it has been truly exciting for the students."
Elhard agrees. "It's a great experience, working with a team," he said. "I'm getting a lot of experience in web design. On top of the credits we receive (for the project) it's definitely been a learning experience that's more valuable to my career than just (taking) another course." He admits that the idea of working with NASA on this project "definitely caught my attention" when Straub first proposed it to his students.
"They had to sign up for it," Straub said, adding that the four students are working on this website on top of their normal course load and extracurricular activities.
"The design process has really been fun," said Elhard, noting that they've been building the website "from basically nothing."
"The students are putting together this system from front to back," Straub said, noting that the initial concept for the system was the brainchild of James Smith, a technical team leader at JPL. Straub and Smith worked together on a predecessor to this system, with a previous group of students - but this prior system had a more limited scope, Straub noted.
"Basically a web system allows folks at JPL to post challenges that university students are appropriate to help them with, like designing part of a spacecraft or software for a mission," Straub said. "They would post it on the system and students and teams at colleges and universities across the country can throw their hats in the ring and say, 'We can help you with that.'"
The new system will be available to people throughout the JPL and to college students nationwide. It will allow these students to have the same experience that Elhard, Bell, Hanlon and Snell are having, while allowing NASA to get students' help on various projects. Students will receive academic credit at their home institution as part of their participation: For instance, Straub said, the four working on this initial website will each receive two full academic credits for the semester, or the equivalent of taking an extra course.
"It's a learning experience - as a team - with a profound impact, compared to your traditional classroom," said Elhard, adding that he's learned a lot from solving many of the challenges associated with designing and developing the website. "I've learned valuable website development experience and team player experience."
Other JPL projects at NDSU are illustrative of what students at other schools could be involved in: A second team of students is currently working with several JPL scientists to develop software to reduce material requirements for 3D printing in-space and on alien worlds and moons, which will ultimately make space missions less expensive and able to conduct more exploration.
"I also think it's important to note that not only is this project providing a benefit to the students at NDSU, but it will provide benefits to students across the country," Straub said. "It really has a pretty significant potential to help a lot of people across the country."
He added that the website is expected to go live in approximately February or March, but even when it's finished there will still be more work needed to maintain and expand its functionality.
"It doesn't have a definite end date," Straub said.