Math Faculty Receive TMC and NASA IV&V Grant

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Math professors Dr. Brian Blackwood, Dr. Tom Cuchta, and Dr. Robert Niichel received a one-year grant from TMC Technologies, a subcontractor of NASA IV&V, to train students in advanced statistics and Python programming. The professors and four Fairmont State students, Mattison Johnson (Math Education & Math double major), Dawn Sargent (Computer Science & Math double major), Carl Wahler (Computer Science and Math double major), and Anna Westfall (Computer Science and Math double major), will be working alongside two TMC employees, Dr. Max Spolaor and Mark Suder on projects during the 2017/2018 academic year.

“These projects will allow the students to get hands-on experience with the latest, most advanced, and exciting Data Science and Machine Learning software technologies,” said Dr. Max Spolaor, Senior Systems Engineer at TMC. “The creative software solutions devised by the students will help NASA IV&V and TMC develop new and powerful mission-critical software assurance capabilities.”

The first part of the grant kicked-off in the fall semester 2017 with a three-hour course designed to give students practical experience in advanced probability, statistics, and the relevant programming skills needed to carry them into the spring semester 2018 projects. On top of their regular coursework, the team met regularly to work on several projects to reinforce the skills they were learning in lecture. The fall semester 2017 ended with a capstone project wherein students were tasked with actually building a computer. The team was granted a graphical processing unit (GPU) by NVIDIA Corporation to aid in the building process.

The final stage of the grant began in January with an explanatory session about the potential projects. Dr. Spolaor tasked students with solving two problems using the Monte Carlo Method – solving both satellite directional stability issues and the motion of a spring pendulum. As part of this semester’s work the team will have the opportunity to work directly with Dr. Spolaor at the NASA IV&V facility in Fairmont. “These projects have actual applicable benefits for NASA IV&V and TMC”, said Dr. Tom Cuchta, math professor at Fairmont State. “The code created by the students for this project could be used in some NASA IV&V or TMC ventures at some point as part of a larger project.”

For the Fairmont State students involved in this project, the benefits can surpass even their undergraduate career. “For students, exploring a question whose answer is unknown is the best way to learn useful things. Research is a very different endeavor than absorbing information organized into a traditional class. If you have a concrete problem whose answer isn't known to you or easily found by an internet search, then determining and learning (or inventing) ways to answer it is the best way to understand and appreciate new concepts. In a more practical sense, the project itself is great for a resume/CV. The code students write for this and similar projects could easily become part of a programming portfolio when job-hunting”, Cuchta explains. On top of that, students are receiving a stipend for participating and will receive a scholarship from the College of Science & Technology.

The results of the spring semester research will be presented both at Fairmont State University and NASA’s IV&V Facility. At least one of the presentation sessions will be open to the public. More information will be forthcoming.