Libby High senior worked on FAA project at MSU

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Libby High School senior Ethan Neff, top, helps Ben Johnson, a mechanical engineering undergraduate at Montana State University, tie rubber bands in a slingshot designed to launch drones July 17. (MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez)

A Libby High School senior spent a month of his summer vacation at Montana State University in Bozeman, working alongside college students on a research project partly funded by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was the second consecutive year Ethan Neff of Libby participated in the Montana Apprenticeship Program (MAP), which helps prepare soon-to-be high school juniors and seniors for college in general and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework in particular.

“My two years in this program has prepared me more for college than anything else,” Neff said. “It has given me connections, tips and a better understanding of the college application and scholarship process.”

Neff “was an excellent participant” last year, and one of two high school students invited back this year to work as a “MAP Fellow,” or research assistant, in an MSU lab on a real-world research project, according to Amy Stix, director of the College of Engineering’s Empower program that oversees the MAP.

Neff and the other MAP fellow, Raferdy Samson of Hot Springs, worked in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and were mentored by Dr. Doug Cairns, she said.

MSU was one of three universities the FAA funded to take part in a program called Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, or ASSURE. UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems, includes the increasingly popular remote-controlled drones; the MSU project simulated collisions between drones and traditional aircraft, generating damage data that will help the FAA formulate safety standards.

Neff stayed on the MSU campus from June 24 to July 21 while working on the project.

“[We fellows] set up the slingshot made out of a trailer and 16 medical grade elastic bands,” Neff explained. “I set up the bands to aim it, set up the winch to pull back the bucket that held the drone, plus built the platform that held the wing in place. The drone got up to 160 mph.”

Stix said Neff spent about four hours a day working on the hands-on aspects of the project.

“During the other half of the day, Ethan continued working on his math skills and writing and communications skills,” she said. “He also participated in some of the ‘lab/field research capsules’ alongside the first-year MAP participants, when his schedule allowed.”

Neff and Samson were also “able to assume roles of peer mentors to the new, first-year students, and serve as terrific role models,” Stix said.

“It was a great experience,” Neff said. “It was nice to be in a program where I was a part of something rather than having my hand held going through everything. It was nice getting treated as an equal, and the program definitely did this, as they allowed me to have more autonomy my second year.”

Stix said applying to take part in the program is competitive. Students must submit an application, personal essay, two reference letters and their high school transcripts, and then be interviewed over the phone.

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