Western Slope High School “Pinterns” Help Build the Next CU Boulder Satellite

Published: Sept. 1, 2016

The 'pinterns' with Andrew Dahir.

Pinterns (l-r) Everett Morton, Jacob Nelson, and Warren Fulton with aerospace PhD student Andrew Dahir in the CubeSat lab in front of a QB 50 test model.

Where would you expect to find a 17-year-old on a summer afternoon? Probably not in an aerospace research lab wearing special antistatic lab coats working on a satellite slated for earth orbit.

That's exactly where Warren Fulton, Everett Morton, and Jacob Nelson spent their summer, helping advance the University of Colorado Boulder's QB50 and MAXWELL CubeSat projects. The three got a unique, hands-on view into the world of aerospace before they've even earned high school diplomas.

“It’s been a chance to be in the life of an engineer. It was a great experience and has gone really well,” Fulton said.

The Western Slope

CU Boulder hosts hundreds of high school students every summer for educational programs, so it might seem like Morton, Fulton, and Nelson are just a few of many, but these kids are from Telluride, Colo. – a six-hour drive from Boulder. They weren’t here for a day camp or weekend program. They were taking advantage of a special six-week long internship initiative specially crafted for students from the Western Slope.

It's an experience they can't get at home.

"There's really not much in Telluride. Our high school is getting a STEM lab, but it's not open yet," Morton said.

Pinhead Institute

The internships were organized by the Telluride-based Pinhead Institute. Despite the group’s humorous name, they’re serious about promoting science and technology in rural Colorado. The nonprofit is Smithsonian affiliated and has roots that go back more than 100 years. A major focus is their internship program, where high school students, officially called “pinterns,” are placed with renowned scientific institutions.

The goal of the internships is to provide life-changing experiences for the pinterns. Students are placed all around the country, and Fulton, Morton, and Nelson’s interest in engineering brought them to Boulder.

Working in the aerospace CubeSat lab, the three contributed to a number of different projects, including computer programming to measure satellite power usage, creating simulations to analyze solar panels, and constructing a mockup for the MAXWELL CubeSat, which is still in its early stages.

Andrew Dahir looks over Warren Fulton's notes.

Aerospace PhD student Andrew Dahir looks over Warren Fulton's notes.

Real Science

It’s not just busy work. These students were involved in real science.

"All of what they’ve done is valuable and of use for the projects," said Scott Palo, an aerospace professor and associate dean in the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

The student’s day-to-day work was overseen by Andrew Dahir, an aerospace PhD student who manages the CubeSat laboratory. Dahir responded to the original request for interns, although he wasn’t expecting the Institute would be so generous with students.

“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take one.’ They sent me three, and all three have worked very hard. It’s been very good,” Dahir said.

The teens are all high achievers – Nelson decided his freshman year at Telluride High that he wanted to take every math class the school offers, a goal he's on track to meet.

A Bright Future

Over the summer, they’ve expanded their proficiency with math and science even more.

 “My knowledge of circuits, electricity, and solar arrays has grown. I’ve picked up a whole new aspect of Python from scratch – programming serial interfaces,” Fulton said.

The internship has given each of them the chance to use their skills professionally at a very young age.

"You can read a lot about engineering, but I haven't really gotten a chance to do it before,” Nelson said.

All three see engineering in their future, although they’re still mulling over college majors. Whether they decide on aerospace or another engineering field, their summer in Boulder has provided an accomplishment afforded to few people: when QB50 and MAXWELL launch, they can point to the sky and say they helped send a satellite to space.