The rovers are robots, tools that can be controlled from the classroom by remote sensing. Originally, they were designed to give students an opportunity to explore Pisgah National Forest. However, the main goal now is to use them to get students excited about science and to keep them engaged. “We really wanted to give our students a sort of experience with technology that just didn’t exist on this campus before,” said Mike Castelaz, physics professor and leader of the rover program. “Here, you have an opportunity really to take something and go and explore something that maybe no one’s ever seen before.”
In addition to Castelaz, a core group was involved with the rover project. Dr. Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, professor of biology and Math and Science Division chair, did the administrative paperwork. Dr. Maureen Drinkard, assistant professor of environmental studies, was in charge of the interns. Christie Whitworth, a former worker at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI), was in charge of the actual rovers.
The process for such an expensive project had many steps. The first order of business was developing the concept. The next step was figuring out how to fund the project. Then, the team needed to write a proposal of the idea and send it to the National Science Foundation, which typically approves only 20 percent of proposals nationwide. This project was selected to get three years of funding.
After organizing and building teams, the next steps were buying parts and then building and programming the rover. The final step was hiring an unbiased, outside evaluator. This entire process took 18 months to complete. The amount given to PARI to fund the rover project was $250,000. The budget for this money was very specific. A portion of $150,000 went to pay the interns, to cover the cost of any traveling needed, and to pay the evaluator. The rest of it went to pay for the hardware to build it, the programmer and the people watching the rover to make sure it was safe.
Two interns, Peter Trench and Liz Hill, were brought in from Brevard College—the first interns PARI has hired. They were two of the very few people that first learned how to use the rover. Hill worked putting parts together and doing some wiring, while Trench recorded data and wrote up some reports.
The two wrote the user’s manual for the rover. They were also preparing to teach faculty how to use them in the classroom and all the different aspects of the rover. “How does it work? What can you expect? What might happen if you do this? That sort of thing,” Castelaz said. There are plans for a few different professors at BC to have students use the rover in class. Dr. Sarah Maveety already had her class use the rover on Sunday, Sept. 30. Dr. Sam Eastridge and Janice Arden are also planning to use the rover in class. Castelaz said future plans that he hopes to accomplish with the rovers is to incorporate and share them with other college campuses and even middle schools and high schools. He wants them to be accessible to students with no exposure to things like rovers. He likes the idea of implementing them into after school programs and eventually to develop them for public use as well. The final goal or dream is to have them become as commonly used in the classroom as a whiteboard, for them to become a common tool.
One thing that has made the whole rovers project possible has been the great support from the college campus. “We had a lot of people sharing the duties and responsibilities of this project. We have the wonderful support of the administration here from the president on down. We couldn’t do the project if we didn’t have that kind of support,” Castelaz concluded. In the future, the hope is to bring more awareness and have big community involvement, but most importantly, to improve student experience.
Photo: Dr. Patricia Craig at the controls of the Desert RATS rover prototype being developed for future manned missions to the Moon, Mars and other planetary bodies.
Prepared by Brevard College Junior Carmen Boone, ’20.