Nicholas Snell is eager for every learning opportunity he can take advantage of. The West Fargo Sheyenne High School graduate and computer science freshman at North Dakota State University couldn't refuse a chance to work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Snell, along with NDSU computer science undergraduates Cody Elhard, Devante Bell and Terrance Hanlon, is building a web system to allow college students to participate in space exploration projects.
"I just received an email and was asked if I wanted to work with NASA," Snell said. "I've been learning a lot. It's been an amazing experience and a lot of work."
The students are working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to make a system to match students at other schools up with JPL so they can participate in projects related to space exploration.
The system will be available to those involved with JPL and college students around the country so they can have the same experience the NDSU group is having and will allow students to help NASA with certain projects.
Snell outlined the web system, worked on the the look of the system and worked with computer programing to make sure it runs smoothly. The team's goal is to have the system ready by next semester. Once completed, JPL will begin reaching out to other colleges.
"It's been a life changing opportunity," Snell said. "In this experience I've gained, I've learned how to collaborate with a team. I've learned computer skills which I think will be awesome in the near future."
NDSU computer science assistant professor Jeremy Straub is serving as a mentor for the project, and JPL technical team leader James Smith created the concept for the system. Straub worked with Smith on a predecessor to the system with a previous group of students which had a more limited scope.
Another group of NDSU students is working with JPL to create a software to reduce material
requirements for 3D printing in space to make space missions less expensive and more productive.
"It's really an incredible opportunity. They're learning a lot of skills," Straub said. "It prepares students to work in the modern workplace. They're getting experience that's preparing them for employment."
Straub said the project gets students out of the classroom and makes them apply skills they learn from school. Employers don't care if a student is good at homework, Straub said, what matters is their real-life experience.
"It almost acts like a translator between the academic experience and the workforce," Straub said, "which is obviously the goal for the vast majority of the experience."
Snell wants to work with a larger company or start his own business someday and believes working on the project prepares him for whatever career path he takes. Snell, who is getting college credit for working on the project, would recommend the learning experience to other students no matter how busy the work got.
"It brings enjoyment to me," Snell said. "It just doesn't feel like work. It feels like a hobby. I think when it's done the whole team and I will definitely be amazed. I think we'll be astonished we've accomplished this. We all found time for our love and our passion."