Penn State Brandywine students design, build remote access telescope

Sarah Kizun of Penn State Brandywine

The team created the telescope using the campus' 3-D printers. Pictured is Penn State Brandywine engineering major Sarah Kizun removing a part from the printer for assembly.  

Credit: Michael McDade

MEDIA, Pa. — When Penn State Brandywine obtained its first 3-D printer several years ago, Associate Professor of Engineering Asad Azemi knew it would spark big ideas in the science and engineering departments on campus.

“We had been looking for a new way to get students engaged with hands-on engineering projects,” he said. “I was specifically looking for a multi-semester, multifaceted project that would expose students to not only engineering, but the fields surrounding it.”

The project started when a student approached Azemi with information about a 3-D-printable, open source telescope. After receiving funding from the campus and Penn State’s College of Engineering, Azemi, along with students and other faculty members, began printing the telescope.

As the team printed, assembled and even redesigned portions of the telescope, the original plan quickly morphed into a more ambitious goal.

“We basically asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t we build a telescope that you can operate from home?’” Azemi said. “We wanted to build something that people could log into remotely and use to take pictures — something accessible to the whole community.”

Today, engineering students Steve Bardos, Sarah Kizun, Melissa Sohn and Michael Vita are doing exactly that, with guidance from their Brandywine faculty advisers Azemi; Timothy Niiler, assistant teaching professor of chemistry and physics; Timothy Lawlor, associate professor of physics and astrophysics; and Martin Yeh, assistant professor of information sciences and technology.

All four students are enrolled in Penn State Brandywine and Penn State Abington’s four-year engineering program. The first two years of the program focus on foundational engineering coursework, which can be completed at Brandywine or Abington. The next two years of advanced engineering coursework are completed at the new engineering facilities at Penn State Great Valley, where students study engineering design with an emphasis on robotics applications. Kizun and Vita started the program at the Brandywine campus, while Bardos and Sohn started at Abington.

“This project allowed us to work with several different programming and computing systems that we haven’t used in the classroom,” Kizun said. “Being involved in a hands-on project gave us a greater depth of knowledge.”

“These types of projects are great for team building, too,” Vita added. “Sure, we’re learning the necessary hard skills, but we’re also learning how to work collaboratively with several different groups. That’s something we’ll need to do in our future jobs. Getting that exposure now prepares us.”

The multifaceted nature of the project means that the students involved are crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries to achieve results. In addition to gaining hands-on engineering experience, the students draw upon principles from physics, mathematics, astronomy and programming on a regular basis.

“It challenges them to cast a wide net. You need mechanical expertise, but also electronics and programming to design the app connecting users to the telescope,” Azemi said. “The future plan is to have an observatory where several telescopes can be accessed via the web. In addition to the 3-D-printed telescope, we are planning to design remote access capabilities for our other existing telescopes so that people can operate them from home and download pictures on their phones or computers.”

With many goals still up ahead for the telescope design team, Azemi acknowledges that the project will take several semesters to complete. However, along the way, it is fulfilling the original, short-term goal — giving Brandywine students an opportunity to become creative, curious and accomplished engineers.

“The whole idea was to get our students excited about engineering, technology and teamwork,” he said. “When we introduce our students to hands-on projects, they have space to experience the full learning cycle of challenges and successes before leaving campus.”