University provides opportunities for students during NASA Rover Challenge

Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center helps students from Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology design and construct space rover for competition

University provides opportunities for students during NASA Rover Challenge

Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center helps students from Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology design and construct space rover for competition

Bumping and bobbing, dipping and dodging, Reno's 2015 team of students from the Washoe County School District's Academy of Arts, Careers and Technology, in conjunction with the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, operated their masterfully crafted rover this spring over a diverse obstacle course designed to simulate various types of lunar terrain. The trek was conducted during the second annual NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge held at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"AACT provides great experiences, like the rover program, that help prepare me for my future at the University," one of this year's two rover operators and AACT student, Owen Schenk, said. "The experience was quite memorable. It took a group of students and made them a team. I remember seeing the rover as the crate was opened in Alabama and how impressive it looked. I thought about how awesome it was that our team had pulled together to create this masterpiece."

The rover program is a partnership of the AACT and Fleischmann Planetarium. The AACT is a full-time signature academy tuition-free high school, where students may earn their high school diploma focusing on a variety of advanced career and technical education courses that prepare students for further education and future careers while also receiving some college credit. The University provides AACT students with a variety of resources, including equipment and knowledgeable faculty and staff members such as Dan Ruby, director of the Planetarium.

"This is one of the ways we work with student groups in the community," Ruby said. "Almost all of the students who participate and graduate out of the rover program enroll in STEM majors here at the University, typically in engineering."

Among 95 other rover teams from high schools, colleges and universities across the globe, the Reno students' team finished third in the high school division obstacle course and was the highest scoring team in their division from the continental U.S. They also won a $250 prize for winning the 2015 System Safety Award, which will go toward funding their participation in next year's Rover Challenge.

"We definitely went into it wanting to get that award, because it is one of the few we haven't won yet," Ruby said.

AACT teams have placed among the top 10 during the past five years. It started in 2011 with the Rookie Award for fastest time by a new team. In 2012, they were awarded the Featherweight Award for lightest vehicle to complete the course in less than eight minutes. In 2013 and 2014, they received the Neil Armstrong Award for best design, and in 2014, they also received first place in the obstacle course.

The focus of NASA's challenge is on designing, constructing and testing of technologies for mobility devices that will perform in diverse lunar environments, preparing students with the experience needed in future exploration missions on planets, moons, asteroids and comets.

Teams consist of six members, including one female and one male driver, who build and race their rover over varying obstacles, including boulder fields, sand pits and craters. Reno's team completed the competition's difficult half-mile course in 5 minutes, 19 seconds, including a vehicle assembly time of 4 seconds.

Jason Christensen participated in the rover program through the engineering academy at AACT during his last three years of high school. Currently a University mechanical engineering major with plans to graduate in 2018, Christensen believes the highlights of his experience in the rover program came during his senior year in 2014, when the team won the Neil Armstrong award for best design as well as the title of world champions for capturing the fastest setup and race time among both college and high school teams.

"I don't believe there is any other program that could have prepared me more for the University as far as the amount of work that went in to making a successful rover and preparing a team for all the challenges that this competition brings, and the end result brought a great amount of pride," Christensen said.

The winning rover is on display on the University campus for free public viewing in the Fleischmann Planetarium and Science Center through August, accompanied by an exhibit about the vehicle and the race experience.

To follow Reno's AACT rover project on Facebook, visit

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