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Los Alamos National Laboratory, ASU celebrate first year of educational alliance


An overhead view of the main Los Alamos National Laboratory campus in New Mexico. The lab and the Fulton Schools are currently in a $3 million partnership.

An overhead view of the main Los Alamos National Laboratory campus in New Mexico. The lab and the Fulton Schools at ASU are currently in a $3 million partnership. Photo courtesy the Los Alamos National Laboratory media team

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May 28, 2024

Nestled in the heart of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, is known for producing advances in nuclear science and national security. As a home to world-class scientists and engineers, the lab prioritizes collaboration as a key to discovery and is always on the search for fresh ideas, including the cultivation of new student experiences and attracting top talent.

LANL found a collaborator less than 500 miles away in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. With a goal of reviving its manufacturing scope to help build a student pipeline to the lab, LANL initiated a $3 million collaboration with the Fulton Schools in the spring of 2023. 

“We are hiring the next generation’s workforce and are looking for high-caliber scientists and engineers from esteemed universities to meet this mission,” says Bob Putnam, chief production scientist and program project director at LANL. “Our goal is a multiyear relationship with increasing complexity as an industry partner. We do not intend to slow down or cut back.” 

Since the beginning of the partnership, LANL has advanced students’ knowledge and encouraged progress toward addressing some of the manufacturing field’s most demanding challenges. The laboratory’s leaders are hopeful that connections with the university will continue to open up new employment opportunities for students.

“Our partnership with LANL demonstrates a deep engagement with a government lab partner that, in turn, fuels interest in engineering, particularly materials processing, robotics and manufacturing,” says Binil Starly, director of the School of Manufacturing Systems and Networks, part of the Fulton Schools.

Central to the alliance is a shared commitment to educating and empowering the next generation of leaders. Through mentorship and strategic funding, LANL has provided ASU students with opportunities to gain hands-on experience, develop essential skills and explore potential career paths.

The success of the collaboration depends on the synergy between industry and students. To achieve that working relationship, LANL has consistently engaged with ASU faculty members and students in ventures such as the introductory experience for Fulton Schools first-year students known as E2, Devils Invent design challenges and capstone projects presented at Innovation Showcase events.

A group of students participating in E2, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering welcome event for first-year students, in 2023. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU
A group of students participating in E2, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering welcome event for first-year students, in 2023. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU

Building skills through hands-on design

From the moment students begin their academic journeys in the Fulton Schools, LANL’s goal is to help create a space for them to grow and develop into engineering leaders.

One example of this is LANL’s presence at E2, the immersive experience for incoming Fulton Schools students designed to nurture a community spirit and support among their peers. E2 enhances technical skills, supplies a strong support network and introduces key industry members who will work alongside students throughout their academic careers.

The two-day camp provides a unique opportunity for first-year students to forge lasting friendships and receive guidance from leading faculty members and industry mentors. LANL’s representatives are on hand to lead students through various design challenges that test collaboration as well as critical thinking.

LANL also sponsored a spring 2024 Devils Invent event called Unexploded Ordnance. Participation in Devils Invent fosters practical design skills and emphasizes the importance of teamwork while working through engineering solutions.

In the weekend-long event, students were challenged to devise solutions for the safe handling and disarming of lethal explosives. The event attracted students from across the university who formed 11 teams.

Their mission was to create a process that could decommission unexploded ordnances left in hypothetical war zones. Project Hummingbird, the first-place team, developed a robot that could pour a solution of E. coli onto the ordnances to remove the TNT in the mines. Learn more about the project in this video.

LANL provided $19,500 in awards, offering students from novice to expert levels the chance to contribute to the solution.

“LANL was an amazing sponsor for this event,” says Michael Machas, a Fulton Schools assistant teaching professor. “Students were able to learn and practice design skills rather than just considering them theoretically.”

Claire Rogers, a spring 2024 engineering (robotics) graduate, Bob Putnam, chief production scientist and program project director at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Stefano Greco, a spring 2024 engineering (electrical systems) graduate, pose in front of their Spring 2024 Innovation Showcase project named the Robotically Assisted Exoskeleton which assists LANL glovebox operators. Photographer: Aisha Kaddi/ASU
From left: Claire Rogers, a spring 2024 engineering (robotics) graduate, Bob Putnam, chief production scientist and program project director at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Stefano Greco, a spring 2024 engineering (electrical systems) graduate, pose in front of their Spring 2024 Innovation Showcase project, the Robotically Assisted Exoskeleton, which assists LANL glovebox operators. Photo by Aisha Kaddi/ASU

Innovation unleashed

Through collaboration with local and global industry leaders, capstone projects offer solutions to real-world problems.

“LANL allowed us to learn and further develop our skills working on a project that mirrored a real-life engineering dilemma,” says Daymon Wilkins, a spring 2024 engineering (robotics) graduate.

LANL sponsored six capstone projects presented at the spring 2024 Innovation Showcase, including one that introduced a robotic arm for assistance within an existing LANL glovebox. The glovebox is a device capable of handling and manipulating materials or components within a controlled environment to reduce hazard potential. Another LANL-sponsored project introduced students to a mid-manufacturing test that speeds up the manufacturing timeline while collecting consistent data on samples. In another project, students focused on developing a customizable design that aimed to minimize the time required for interlocking LANL vacuum chucks, a device that employs a vacuum pump to lower the internal pressure of a workpiece, securing it with the force of atmospheric pressure.

“LANL assisted in steering us in the right direction and in our overall success by asking us questions that led to problem discovery and forward thinking in our design,” says Jacob Pisors, a recent graduate of the engineering (robotics) program. “When I complete my master’s degree, I plan to reconnect with LANL to explore job opportunities.”

By treating students as equals and peers throughout the process, LANL engineers created an inclusive and comfortable environment.

“Our partners established a foundation of mutual respect and trust,” says Nayeli Rodriguez, who recently earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering (automotive systems). “This approach not only empowered us to actively engage in discussions and share our perspectives, but also encouraged a free exchange of knowledge and ideas.”

LANL’s goal was to encourage students’ progress while not hindering their creative flow.

“Instead of being overly hands-on, they provided constructive feedback on each stage of the design process to help steer the team in the right direction,” says Stefano Greco, a spring 2024 engineering (electrical systems) graduate.

Highly engaged mentors have proven to be an important factor in the success of student research projects.

“LANL has provided very significant resources to support the partnership,” says Darryl Morrell, an associate professor of engineering in The Polytechnic School, part of the Fulton Schools. “Their investment consistently improves our students’ experience.”

Empowering the next generation of industry leaders

LANL enhances ASU’s culture of innovation, integrating students into industry-level pursuits during their college years and building their engineering confidence so they are better prepared to enter the workforce after graduation.

“We have been impressed with the students that we have interacted with in the Fulton Schools,” Putnam says. “They represent many of the ideals we need in the workforce.”

Portrait of Connor Morse.
Connor Morse

Connor Morse, who graduated with a manufacturing engineering bachelor’s degree in spring 2023, was one of the first ASU students to be hired at LANL prior to the new collaboration. When Morse first spoke to LANL leaders at a Polytechnic campus visit, the team took a liking to him and kept in touch.

Impressed by his engineering cadence and the research Morse conducted for his senior capstone project, which was sponsored by Raytheon, LANL offered him a position as a research and development engineer.

“It was a really compelling offer to receive,” Morse says. “Knowing I could go back to school and get my master’s degree at any time, I opted to take the opportunity to jump right into the industry.”

Over the past seven months, Morse has been immersed in extensive training and field preparation.

“LANL takes the time to ease you into the work and guide you every step of the way,” he says. “There’s always something new to learn here.”

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