Canceled summer internships turn into interstellar opportunities


By Miranda Buckheit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Due to complications from COVID-19, many Penn State engineering students lost internships or full-time offers for summer 2020. As a way to help students fill their summer with meaningful experiences, the College of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Learning Factory gave students the opportunity to apply to a 10-week internship program that paired students with sponsors to work remotely on projects.

Through the program, industrial engineering (IE) students Alexander Seidel, junior, and Suhail Al Sharabati, senior, are working on matters of space exploration such as rocket consoles and space suits.

Tara Dulaney Ritsko, industrial engineering alumna, 2004, served as a project sponsor, helping students learn more about industrial engineering as a profession. This pairing transpired through Dulaney Ritsko’s involvement with the Penn State Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering Society (PSIMES) by answering the call for mentorship of uprooted students.

“The students are able to take their industrial engineering education, leveraging concepts, principles and theories into the unique aspects of space exploration to help create a sustainable interstellar presence and commercial industry,” Dulaney Ritsko said. “It’s important to present students with an idea and see how they use industrial engineering techniques to improve it.”

In addition to sharing her own knowledge, Dulaney Ritsko has invited colleagues in the space industry to share their own unique paths and passion for using industrial engineering in industry to interested students.

“During these group sessions, the students have been exposed to a variety of career opportunities, from consulting to scheduling, implementing safety systems to project management, and from space operations to the importance of communication,” Dulaney Ritsko said. “This was a chance to show them that IE opens the doors for opportunities, whatever career path you choose.”

The cockpit

“I’ve always wanted to work for Disney, so in the past I didn’t always get excited about other opportunities,” Seidel said. “This project with Tara came at an excellent time because when I was watching the recent SpaceX launch, I thought that I might also be interested in working on space-related projects.”

Seidel’s project focuses on capsule consoles and space travel ergonomics. Beginning broadly, he investigated the more traditional mechanical control consoles. Those consoles used buttons and knobs to control the vessel.

Additionally, Seidel looked into the use of color coding for touch screen consoles, like green for go or red for stop, and other best practices for visual alerts and controls. He then compared mechanical consoles to the touch screen technology. Similar technology was used in the recent SpaceX Dragon Crew Demo-2 launch, which was the inspiration for this research.

“What I found was interesting because color coding the system actually caused more errors,” Seidel said. “Blinking lights were shown to be more useful than color coded buttons.”

Seidel also began researching the capability of leveraging the newer touch screen technology.

“Safety comes before anything else for space travel, so I am trying to learn whether or not touch screens will actually be safe,” Seidel said. “You can shrink down the console, sure, but how responsive is a touch screen? What kinds of gloves do astronauts need to use a touch screen?”

Seidel explained that the project has been an eye-opening experience. He noted that the project is allowing him to explore new ideas and concepts outside of his comfort zone — he knew he was interested in space travel, but this was the first time he’s had an opportunity to learn more.

Without the Learning Factory’s summer internship program, Seidel said he wouldn’t have been able to make as many connections or feel occupied during the summer months.

“Our Penn State community is strong,” Seidel said. “I didn’t come to Penn State just for the good classes; our alumni network is great! This sets an example for my future and how I can give back.”

The apparel

Sharabati’s project ties in directly with Seidel’s — he is researching suit sizing methods and glove specifications, which can then affect the type of consoles that can be used within a space craft.

He began by researching the different space suits used by NASA over the years. Dulaney Ritsko encouraged Sharabati to first review the original space suits and fighter pilots’ suits. Sharabati also investigated the differences in space suits designs for men and women, height differences and cultural influences.

“I started off by researching all of NASA’s iconic space suits and I gathered as many details as I could about their specifications,” Sharabati said. “I found my interest in sizing of the space suits, specifically the range of sizes and interchangeability of apparel. I really like that I get to look at NASA’s older suits and see how they have developed over time.”

Dulaney Ritsko added that the group is proposing a novel sizing approach using interchangeability technologies for apparel measurement. The team is looking into using 3D printing to swap out pieces to make apparel work for more people.

Sharabati explained that while COVID-19 may have disrupted his original summer plans, he appreciates the program because it enables him to “try hard every day.”

“I did not expect myself to find something I am driven about that is not in my classes,” Sharabati said. “I like the fact that I am in full control of my research because I can talk about whatever I want to. This program taught me that I can do great work if it is work that I have a passion for.”

Sharabati also explained that working with Dulaney Ritsko has been tremendous.

“Tara is a wonderful mentor that helps us every time we are in need,” Sharabati said. “She has been the reason why I am getting excited about this project, as she motivates me every week to look at things in a different perspective.”


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Megan Lakatos