FIRST Newsletter - September, 2011 - Alex Kern

Alex Kern, Intern

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Testing Code for NASA’s Mars Rover 

Some high-school students just dream about studying galaxies, spaceships, and the solar system. However, for FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) team member, Alex Kern, an internship experience with the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) Internship Program in Pasadena, California, turned science fiction into reality.

Last summer, the then-16-year-old sophomore at Beverly Hills High School in Beverly Hills, California, became one of the youngest interns ever employed at JPL, where he had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on the next-generation Mars Rover, Curiosity. During his internship in the Space Grant Program, Kern spent 10 weeks of his summer vacation testing code for autonomous commands used to drive the Rover ─ which NASA will launch in October 2011. Before he was able to participate in the internship, Kern had to acquire three high-level security clearance badges from JPL, NASA, and the California Institute of Technology.

"The internship was an incredible privilege and an amazing educational opportunity because my Mentor was both a mechanical engineer in mobility and robotic systems, as well as a FIRST Mentor,” says Kern.

While many of Kern’s tasks were “quite abstract,” the overall mission of the MSL reads like something out of a George Orwell novel: collecting Martian rock samples to determine if life on Mars ever existed. Other more ordinary projects included updating the command dictionary for the Rover, which involved working with thousands of autonomous commands that will be sent to the Curiosity when it lands on the red planet and zaps rocks in search of water. Kern also helped to write test plans and procedures to verify if certain aspects of the Rover’s motor control system were working as designed. In addition, he met with colleagues to resolve issues that arose during eight-hour test bed shifts.

Kern says one of the most valuable lessons he learned during his internship was a better understanding of practical mechanical engineering. Although the aspiring scientist already had a basic knowledge of the mechanics of simple machines ─ encoders and actuators ─ the JPL internship gave him an understanding of more advanced machinery such as resolvers and brushless motors. The high-school junior adds that a background in computer science is invaluable, too, when it comes to the field of robotics. “One of the most peculiar things about JPL is that everyone ─ even hardware professionals ─ understands, to some extent, how computers work and the mathematical concepts behind computation.”

At the end of his internship, Kern shared his experiences in an employee lunch hour presentation at JPL. Kern was asked to return this summer to work with JPL scientists and engineers on a cutting-edge cloud computing project.

FRC Team Experience a Stepping Stone to NASA Internship

Kern initially became involved with FIRST the summer before eighth grade when he discovered that his counselor at a computer-based summer camp was involved with FRC. Since then, he has been an active member of FRC Team 1515/FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) Team161, “MorTorq.”

While he hasn’t done any simulated space travel as a member of Team MorTorq, Kern’s experiences with FIRST have been just as rewarding. One of four presidents for the team, Kern is also head of programming and media for MorTorq. During the past four years, he and his team members have won numerous awards at various FIRST events, including an award for their touch screen control system at both the 2011 FRC Colorado Regional and FRC Los Angeles Regional. Instrumental in winning the award was a video that the team created, which demonstrates the touch screen interface. Kern recalls many long nights spent trying to get the touch screen to work.

“It was one of the most difficult challenges of my life. It was worth it though because we won the Motorola Quality Award in Portland, Oregon that year (2010).” The award-winning video was shown at an Oracle software convention last fall. 

Lessons Learned at FIRST Can Be Applied to Outer Space

Kern says the most valuable lesson learned from his experiences with FIRST was how to work with a team. “It helped me realize that no single person can pull the weight of an entire FIRST team. FIRST necessitates teamwork in order to build a successful robot. This is exactly how it is in the workplace, too: no one person could have created the Mars Rover on his or her own, either.”

Kern says that he was able to use what he learned at FIRST during his internship and adds that those experiences also have given him a fantastic foundation for college and a career in technology. "My connection with FIRST  made my JPL internship experience exciting and enjoyable. Not only did it set me apart from many other Space Grant applicants; it also gave me a solid foundation from which to program software for robots. I learned a tremendous amount of new knowledge at JPL, and found that many of the same concepts acquired in FRC could be applied to the Mars Rover,” says Kern, who learned to “drive” on Mars before he could drive in Los Angeles.

Kern's plans include mentoring FIRST teams while in college and beyond, especially in the fields of programming and web development. As for his future career? Kern hopes to get a degree in software engineering with a minor in business and marketing and perhaps form a web-based start up. For some of us, Mars is just a stepping-stone to the next adventure.

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