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NASA Grant Helps Students Prepare for Their Next Steps

Physics major Jake Stein ’20 gained valuable hands-on experience in Bethel labs through the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded effort for STEM students. Stein built three Taylor-Couette flow apparatuses through the grant, which helped him gain mechanical engineering experience to prepare him for graduate school.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

April 13, 2020 | 1:30 p.m.

Jake Stein

Physics major Jake Stein ’20 built three Taylor-Couette flow apparatuses last summer through the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded effort for STEM students. It helped him gain hands-on experience to prepare for graduate school, and Bethel received the three apparatuses for future students.

In Bethel’s fluids lab, Jake Stein ’20 adjusts the speed of liquid moving in a Taylor-Couette flow apparatus. He built the apparatus, which features a motor on top of a small, clear cylinder that rotates an inner black cylinder, causing the liquid solution inside to flow. For Stein, the work carries important implications for his future. Along with gaining practical experience, he found his efforts never felt like work. “I love to do it,” he says. “It’s good to know, going into mechanical engineering, I really love to work on a project, design stuff, actually build it, and spend time trying to create something.”

The three Taylor-Couette apparatuses Stein built reflect the valuable hands-on experience he gained at Bethel, which will be important as he transitions to graduate school. Stein was one of five Bethel students to receive project funding in 2019 through the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium, a NASA-funded effort to provide opportunities to students in STEM-related fields. “It is very important for students to get hands-on, practical experience,” says Instructor of Physics Alyssa Hamre Kontak, Bethel’s faculty representative in the consortium. “Part of the ways that they do that is through working with our labs.”

Stein received a grant to fund the parts and materials needed to build the apparatuses for his summer work. While majoring in physics, Stein’s work to build Taylor-Couette apparatuses is a chance to develop hard skills for mechanical engineering by designing and fabricating something. He hopes to earn a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota and then seek a career in industry, possibly working for a firm that builds biomedical devices. “Especially for a student like me, who is a more of a physics-oriented undergrad hoping to go into mechanical engineering, it was really important to get hands-on experience building something,” he says. “I think that’s part of the reason I got accepted into grad school.”
Jake Stein

The Taylor-Couette flow apparatus is a common hands-on classroom tool used reinforce classroom lessons. A motor turns an inner cylinder to create flow, and a solution of shaving cream and water helps students visualize flow. After building three apparatuses through the Space Grant over the summer, Physics major Jake Stein ’20 is building is designing and building an upgraded Taylor-Couette flow apparatus where the inner and outer cylinders can both rotate.

At Bethel, the Space Grant helps pay student researchers for summer work. Grants tend to mainly cover research projects and higher education projects, though it also touches on outreach and scholarship. Higher education projects like Stein’s work to build three Taylor-Couette flow apparatuses is a win-win: Stein gains experience while Bethel’s physics and engineering department receive the new apparatuses. They will be used by future students in the Fluid Mechanics course and for student research.

The Taylor-Couette flow apparatus is a common hands-on classroom tool used to visualize flow and reinforce classroom lessons. It touches on important concepts in physics as students learn about flow between two surfaces or how flows interact with a smooth surface or a bumpy surface. Using shaving cream and water, students can visualize and can make and test calculations using the apparatus.

For his senior research project this spring, Stein is designing and building an upgraded Taylor-Couette flow apparatus where the inner and outer cylinders can both rotate. Though his current work is not being funded by the Space Grant, he is building on the lessons and experience gained over the summer. He’s also hoping to build in a way to change out the inner surface to include a wedge, which would mimic something like the flap on an airplane wing. “With a solution like this, you’d be able to see, it would come in, it would hit this thing, and then like have to rush around the sides or go over the top, and you’d be able to see all of the distortion and turbulence that comes,” he says. “It would be really useful for modeling and looking at something like that.”

Stein starts by designing a 3D model of the Taylor-Couette apparatus in Onshape, an online computer-aided design program used commonly in engineering courses. The program helps him design the parts, see if they work together, and calculate dimensions—and how well the finished apparatus will function. He can then purchase some parts online, while others will be fabricated in Bethel’s machine shop, where he frequently worked over the summer.

While physics and mechanical engineering are different, Stein notes the sciences are closely related. In physics, you’re discovering something, learning something, or trying to figure out how it works, he explains. In mechanical engineering, you’re using those skills and lessons to build or design something. “Honestly, it kind of feels like LEGOS,” Stein laughs. He poses a hypothetical question: “How do I build something that lifts this up? I loved LEGOS as a kid. It’s obviously a little different, but it feels the same.”

In the physics classes, you’re uncovering or discovering how God created everything.

— Physics major Jake Stein '20
As he develops his science and engineering knowledge, Stein values the chance to incorporate his faith into his education at a Christian university like Bethel. His physics professors have helped him see how well science and faith work together. “In the physics classes, you’re uncovering or discovering how God created everything,” he says. Stein recalls learning about light in his Modern Physics course. Many scientific properties or constants go back to the speed of light as a base. His professor said that makes it fitting that the first thing God created was light. “It makes sense that all of this around us can be defined or goes back to the speed of light,” he says.

Along with Bethel being a place where he can blend science and faith, Bethel is a familiar place for the Stein family. Stein is a third-generation Bethel student. On his mom’s side, grandparents Lynne and Garvin McGettrick taught piano and music at Bethel. His paternal grandfather, Robert Stein, taught courses at the college and seminary for 28 years. His parents, several of his siblings, and several cousins have also attended Bethel. And many have explored the sciences. In fact, his uncle Professor of Physics Keith Stein ‘87 oversees his research. He’s loved getting to go to his uncle for help, or just to chat about broomball or the Minnesota Vikings. “I kind of have fun with it,” Stein jokes. “I’ll call him Doctor Uncle Stein.”

But Keith Stein warned his nephew that he better not get too rowdy in class because he has access to baby photos. So far, the professor hasn’t had to use any. “Nah,” Jake laughs. “I wasn’t too much trouble.”
Students and a professor do research in a physics lab at Bethel University.

Physics and Engineering at Bethel.

There has never been a better time to begin studying physics or engineering at Bethel. The department—which ranks in the top 15 of undergraduate departments by size nationally—underwent an expansion and renovation in 2017 and 2019. Significant funding from the National Science Foundation and other major partners supports student-faculty research, and Bethel has become a leader in the use of advanced labs nationally. New majors include mechanical engineering, computer engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering—and the number of students studying physics or engineering is projected to increase as the program continues to expand.

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