Young computer science student shoots for the stars

Box

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Kobi Hudson shows what will go inside the little box he’s helping launch into space.

Kobi Hudson is still a little embarrassed about how he acquired an intense interest in computer science.

“I was just really against the idea of taking a foreign language in high school,” he said. So when he heard that some colleges gave foreign-language credits for computer science classes, “I said, ‘Heck yeah!’”

Given his academic habits, it seems safe to assume he’ll pick up another language or two one of these days. In the meantime, the Rocky Mountain College sophomore’s interest in computer science is keeping him plenty busy.

It was announced last week that he is the 2014-15 winner of the Montana Space Grant Consortium’s Hiscock Memorial Award. Hudson is thinking of using part of the award to travel to Cape Canaveral when a rocket bearing his research project takes off on its way to the International Space Station next June.

That’s his hope, anyway.

“If I get the job I want this summer, I’ll have to talk to them,” he said. “It’ll be their decision.”

The job he’s applying for is with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. This is a 19-year-old accustomed to aiming high.

When he graduated from Billings Senior High School in the spring of 2013, he had already earned 26 credits at Rocky and Montana State University Billings, more than any other student in the history of Senior High. Hudson is especially proud of that accomplishment because of his family’s long history at the school.

He said his great-grandmother graduated from Senior High in 1945. His mother, Jennifer, is a 1992 graduate of Senior High and is now a math teacher there.

Hudson was a sophomore when he took his first computer science class from Vince Long, who retired from Senior High in 2012. As Long remembers it, Hudson took to computer science immediately.

“He’s the kind of guy, if he’s interested enough in something, he’ll just devour it,” Long said.

Hudson soon started going to an after-school science club, too, where he and a fellow student named Tucker Downs became obsessed with building a robotic device that could graph parametric functions on an Etch-A-Sketch. They took that project to the Science Bowl at Montana State University two years in a row.

Both of them also began taking computer science classes at Rocky through a partnership the college has with Billings high schools.

“We aggressively recruit high school students to take our classes while they’re still in high school,” said Andy Wildenberg, an associate professor of computer science at Rocky. “It’s a huge payback for our department. We get these really amazingly talented students, and then we keep a lot of them.”

Look

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Here\’s another look at the enclosure, with the lights on inside.

Through another program that allows high school students to take courses at MSUB for just $50 a credit, Hudson began studying at that college, too. In his last two years of high school, in addition to his computer science classes at Rocky, Hudson took calculus 1 and 2, mathematics, chemistry and chemistry lab at MSUB. During the busiest stretch, the first semester of his senior year, he was taking 12 college credits in addition to keeping up with his high school classes.

“It was absolutely the best choice I ever made,” he said, though he claims he “wasn’t anything special” in his college classes: “I didn’t do exceedingly well. I was completely average.”

More than anything, what he learned during those few intensive semesters was how to get all his work done.

“Time management, time management,” he said. “Teachers are always saying that. I guess they weren’t just making that up.”

By the time he graduated from Senior, Hudson had enough credits to be classified as a sophomore at Rocky. But because he has a triple major—computer science, mathematics and physics—he figures he’ll do a full four years at Rocky.

He won the Hiscock Memorial Award, given annually to an undergraduate or graduate student in Montana, for his work on a modularized aluminum box, officially known as a NanoRacks NanoLabs enclosure, that will be used to test the growth of algae in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station.

The goal of the experiment is to see whether algae can be grown in that environment. Because algae converts carbon dioxide to oxygen as it grows, it might make long-term manned space flights more feasible. As Hudson explained it, two of the most expensive components of a space flight are fuel and the oxygen.

The plan is to grow the algae in agar, the substance used in Petri dishes, rather than water. For this experiment, the algae has to be contained in a small enclosure that could be monitored from Earth. Wildenberg helped Hudson and other students design a computer program that would monitor the algae growth as the space station orbits at an altitude of 220 miles.

The aluminum container is just 4-by-4-by-6 inches and weighs a kilogram. In that little box will be three small plastic jars containing the algae, a temperature sensor, a memory card to record data, a Texas Instruments circuit board, grow lights, a camera light and a camera.

The Hiscock award comes with a $1,500 check, which can be used for tuition, travel, research supplies or other educational purpose. Even more important was a $30,000 grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which will cover the cost of getting the algae container into space.

Even with an educational discount, Hudson said, the cost of transporting anything to the space station is $10,000 a pound. The project that Wildenberg and his students have been working on for several years began as part of the HUNCH initiative, for High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware.

One of the best parts about studying at Rocky, Wildenberg said, is that students are given the chance to work on research projects that would be reserved for graduate students at a larger school. The small computer science department also makes it possible for enthusiastic students like Hudson and Downs to influence everyone else in the department.

“They’re always so fun,” he said. “It’s not that Kobi can’t be serious. He can be very serious. But he likes to have a lot of fun.”

Long said something similar about having Downs and Hudson in high school. With students like those two, he said, “mainly what I would do was try to create opportunity in the class for them to grow in the direction they were interested in. … You just kind of get out of their way and let them go have fun.”

On Facebook, Wildenberg said, Hudson alternates between cerebral explanations of complex science projects and action-packed posts about riding BMX bicycles with his father, Jason, who worked in and managed bike shops in Missoula and Billings for 28 years.

“It’s weird to say that your 47-year-old dad can do a backflip on a bike and you can’t,” Hudson said.

With his dad, who used to race professionally, Hudson is also converting a 1984 Honda Civic CRX into an autocross race car.

After college, Hudson said, he might do graduate work at MSU in Bozeman. Wherever he goes he wants to stay involved in space-related work, as either a researcher or a teacher. There is so much to learn, he said, so many things to explore.

“It’s super fascinating to me,” he said. “I’d like to know all these answers.”

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