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CASA Summer Outreach Reaches Thousands

Over the summer, members of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) were hard at work organizing outreach activities to benefit CASA’s students, industrial partners, and the general public. Through these outreach activities, CASA’s students were given opportunities to participate in various events to spread the word about CASA’s revolutionary research into observing, understanding, tracking, and predicting severe weather, while also saving lives. As part of its core R&D effort, CASA has developed a powerful new network of low-cost, polarimetric, Doppler radars that can detect tornadoes at much lower altitudes than existing radars, thus tracking them as they actually form and touch down.

For several years now, CASA’s rural Oklahoma test bed has demonstrated the ability to track twisters more accurately and alert emergency personnel earlier than ever before. Then, this past spring, a CASA radar on the Amherst campus helped issue alerts when tornadoes touched down right in our own back yards. 

As a National Science Foundation sponsored Engineering Research Center (ERC), CASA carries out a mission that goes far beyond its groundbreaking R&D. “One of the goals of the ERC program is to train the next generation of engineers,” explains Janice Brickley, the Administrative Director of CASA. “By participating in research, education/outreach activities, and industrial collaboration, young engineers learn to be innovative leaders.

CASA’s Education and Outreach Director Paula Rees and Innovation Manager Apoorva Bajaj teamed up to plan and execute a busy summer of outreach activities. The outreach initially focused on about 11 CASA students from UMass Amherst but ultimately engaged some 27 undergraduates, 25 master’s students, and 31 doctoral students from UMass and three other CASA partner universities: the University of Oklahoma, Colorado State University, and the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez (UPRM).

“These students are our ambassadors carrying the message of our research,” says Bajaj. “They are able to communicate the research in new ways given their experience working together to understand the weather and developing systems-level approaches to solving problems. They bring that knowledge to the world at large.”

The first outreach event was Extreme Weather Day, held at the Museum of Science in Boston on June 11 and aimed at explaining weather technology to the general public. The CASA team was led by Prof. Steve Frasier and Prof. Mike Zink, who each gave presentations, and participants included two undergraduate students, two undergraduate interns, and two graduate students, all doing research at CASA.  An important member of the CASA cast was Robert Palumbo, a Raytheon systems engineer enrolled in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Ph.D. program through the Raytheon Advanced Studies Program, who directed several hands-on demonstrations for visitors. The demonstrations involved not only CASA’s radar technologies, but also the infrasound sensors CASA is investigating for detecting tornadoes from the very low-frequency sounds they make. The infrasound research has been enabled by the Jerome M. Paros Fund for Measurement and Environmental Sciences Research, created with a gift of $2 million and currently supporting CASA.

“This was an excellent experience for the students to go out beyond the university and exhibit what CASA does to the public,” says Bajaj.

On July 25, an “Entrepreneurship Webinar” was organized for CASA students from UMass, Colorado State, and UPRM. Jim Pearson, a UMass alumnus, gave an informative talk on entrepreneurship. One of the highlights of the program was a presentation by ECE graduate alumnus Manoj Sinha, co-founder of Husk Power Systems, a company attempting to provide electricity to rural villages across India. He has raised over $3.5 million in equity capital and a commitment of $1 million more in debt capital for his socially conscious company.

“Before this, his story had gone missed here at the college,” notes Bajaj. “But it inspired our students during the webinar.”

On July 29, five undergraduates presented their summer CASA research during a poster session of some 50 students in the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program. The CASA students were interviewed by WWLP-TV 22 and WGGB-TV 40 in Springfield, as well as NPR station WFCR, thus reaching thousands of viewers and listeners with the transformational research being done here.

On July 28, a group of about 10 students and staff from CASA visited Raytheon’s Integrated Air Defense Center in Andover, MA. Dr. Chris McCarroll, Director of  Electrical Design and a UMass College of Engineering alumnus himself, arranged the tour. After his presentation, he engaged students in a long and personal interchange about their career plans. “He also spent the entire day with us as we were touring the company,” recalls Bajaj, “and for somebody at his high level, that was a considerable investment of his time.”

One of the six touring CASA students, Jorge Trabal, put it this way: “Especially welcoming was Dr. Chris McCarroll, who during the visit treated the UMass group as if we were part of the Raytheon family.”

It was a fitting climax for a summer of productive outreach at CASA, because Raytheon is one of the organization’s nine industrial partners and has been nurturing our students for a long time.

“When CASA works with industrial partners such as Raytheon, our primary goal as an ERC is doing research together to create new technologies and new business opportunities,” says Bajaj. “But when industries come to CASA, they are not only looking for technology, but also for students who can be their future employees who can turn those technologies into products and market opportunities.”

That kind of healthy partnership, in fact, defines what CASA outreach is all about.

Additional information on CASA and its research and outreach programs can be found at http://www.casa.umass.edu/. (October 2011)