PHS engineers earn spot in NASA challenge

PHS engineers earn spot in NASA's sky-high challenge
Posted on 01/30/2023
This is the image for the news article titled PHS engineers earn spot in NASA's sky-high challengeA team of talented young engineers from Piscataway High School has been selected for NASA’s prestigious TechRise Student Challenge, earning the right to have an experiment they designed and built to be carried by a high-altitude balloon into a suborbital flight.

Just 60 teams from across the country were chosen to take part in this unique opportunity for student experiments that cannot be replicated in ground-based tests. Piscataway was the only team selected from New Jersey.

“It makes me very proud,” said PHS engineering teacher Paul Mazur, adviser to the Technology Student Association (TSA), part of the PHS Engineering Academy. “They’re a very good team. The kids really worked very hard on this.”

PHS engineers with teacher and principal
Seven students from the Technology Student Association helped create the experiment chosen for NASA's TechRise Challenge. From left are Aaron Aguila, Vivek Mistry, Palesh Keswani, Principal Chris Baldassano, Brinda Guntur, Ananya Guntur, Kanika Syal, Vaishvi Patel, and engineering teacher Paul Mazur.

The Piscataway experiment, conceived by a seven-person team, is titled, “Decreased Stratospheric Ozone’s Agrarian Impact.” The team submitted a detailed proposal to NASA explaining their experiment. They plan to launch a measuring device on NASA’s balloon to detect ozone levels in the stratosphere as well as gauge the impact on agriculture on the ground.

CBS 2 NEWS: Piscataway HS engineering team earns spot in NASA TechRise Challenge

“I am consistently impressed with the ingenuity of our students,” said Principal Chris Baldassano. “To be recognized by NASA for that ingenuity is truly an honor, and I am so proud of our students for their accomplishment. I look forward to learning about the results.”

The team worked quickly under tight deadlines to formulate the winning proposal. Now that they have been selected, they will actually build the measuring device using tools and materials provided by NASA.

PHS engineers opening equipment boxStudents opening the payload box of tools and equipment from NASA.

They team gathered on Wednesday, Jan. 25 – a week after learning they were selected – to open the payload box of equipment sent from NASA, as well as to reflect on what they’ve accomplished so far and the work ahead.

“I’m extremely excited,” said senior Kanika Syal, president of the TSA. “I’m proud of us. I’m extremely proud of the rest of the team. What I look forward to most is to continue to work with them on this experiment that we put so much effort into.”

Syal recounted how she felt when she found the team’s proposal had been chosen, and sharing the excitement with fellow senior Ananya Gunter, the TSA vice president.

“I was extremely excited. I started texting her in all caps, then we started yelling when we saw each other later,” she said. “We were all so happy in that moment and so eager to get started.”

teacher talking to students
Engineering teacher Paul Mazur speaking with students working on the experiment for NASA's TechRise Challenge.

Guntur said the proposal came together very quickly. She found out about the challenge a week before the proposal was due and brought the idea to the team. Then the work started.

“We had Zoom calls, and we started brainstorming. ‘What should we do? What’s our plan?’” she recalled. “We wanted to set ourselves apart, and a big part was that we wanted to reduce costs. So I guess they liked that plan.”

The other members of the team are Aaron Aguila, Brinda Guntur, Vivek Mistry, Palash Keswani and Vaishvi Patel.

tools and equipment from NASA
Tools and equipment provided by NASA.

"NASA’s missions of tomorrow are sparked by the accomplishments of the Artemis Generation today in classrooms across America,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, referring to NASA’s latest moon-landing initiative. “Through opportunities like the TechRise Student Challenge, young people are deepening their passion in science and technology, preparing to be the future innovators and pioneers who help humanity soar to new heights and unlock more secrets of the universe.”

In their proposal, the Piscataway team explained that UV-B rays from the sun can be destructive to agriculture, and the ozone layer of the stratosphere is vital in blocking those rays. Their device will include an ozone detector to measure levels at 70,000 feet, and a camera to take aerial images of farmland below. A programmed microsensor will detect any abnormality or damage to land in the photos. The images and the ozone levels will be compared to determine a possible association.

“The world is going through an agriculture crisis,” the proposal read. “Climate change negatively affects us in many different ways. But the main focus of this project is to collect tangible data on how climate change affects agriculture.”

diagram of experiment
A diagram that Piscataway High School students included in their winning proposal for NASA's TechRise Challenge.

A group of about 275 volunteer judges with expertise in engineering, space, and earth science reviewed entries and selected winners from across the nation. Proposal evaluation criteria included the originality of their experiment idea; its impact on education or society; feasibility to build the experiment in the allotted timeframe and budget; and the quality of the build plan.

Syal, who plans to study mechanical engineering in college, said she thinks the “insane” amount of detail in their three-page proposal is what set Piscataway apart.

“A proposal is supposed to be a brief go-over of what we want to do,” she said. “We went even more in detail on that, specifying how exactly we want to do it and what it will do for the future.”

teacher with students
Engineering teacher Paul Mazur with students, from left, Ananya Guntur, Kanika Syal, and Palesh Keswani.

The final project is due on May 5, and the team is eager to get hands-on and put their plan into action. They will be mentored along the way by a team of professional engineers.

“I’m so excited for the next phase,” said Guntur, who plans to study engineering in college. “I can’t wait till we actually build it. I can’t even stay still. Being mentored by engineers will be super cool.”

On flight day, the payload will gather data as the balloon launches and ascends to an altitude of about 70,000 feet, where it will float for at least four hours. During flight, the experiment will be exposed to the unique thermal and atmospheric environment of the stratosphere.

Mazur said the Piscataway project is being led by the students, while he works behind the scenes to make sure they meet deadlines and have everything they need from the school district and NASA.

“I think this is a really great opportunity,” he said, “not only for the team here today, but this is going to serve as a great model for future aspiring engineers as well.”