Undergraduate engineering major helps modernize wind tunnel research at ORNL to assist U.S. Air Force
Chandler Hinton and her grandfather, a former electrical engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority, always enjoyed doing things together that made them think. When it came time to apply to college, Hinton reminisced on their conversations about science and technology and all the elements of the known and unknown, the tangible and the invisible, and she decided to follow in his footsteps. But pursuing a degree in electrical engineering hasn’t been easy, especially without her grandfather’s guidance.
“My grandfather died before I could truly realize just how knowledgeable he was,” said Hinton. “When I started college, I was behind the ball experience-wise compared to most of my classmates. I hadn’t been building computers since middle school or coding since I was ten. At that point I really wished my Papaw was still alive to ask him several questions. But even without him, I became determined he would be part of my inspiration to finish my degree—even if it was an uphill climb.”
During the past two summers, Hinton walked the halls of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) gaining insight into her own future as an electrical engineer and cultivating skills that have helped her in the classroom.
Hinton, a senior at the Tennessee Technology University in Cookeville, Tennessee, participated in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at ORNL. The program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy and provides opportunities for students of all academic levels to study real-world energy and environmental problems in a top-tier federal facility.
Hinton interned in the Integrated Operations Services Division under her mentor Michael Duncan, a program manager for ORNL’s metrology lab. Hinton’s task was to assist the U.S. Air Force Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory (PMEL) in upgrading and improving devices known as wind tunnels used to calibrate diagnostic, measurement, and test equipment for the U.S. Air Force.
The wind tunnels simulate velocities achieved by certain Air Force aircraft and are therefore used to calibrate anemometers, which measure air speed. Airmen rely on this equipment to ensure their aircraft will function optimally in flight.
ORNL developed these wind tunnels in the late 1990s, but the tunnels have since experienced age-related malfunctions as the adoption of newer software platforms disabled the code originally written for the wind tunnels’ instrumental panels.
Hinton’s task was to repair the code to bring it up-to-date with the newer versions of Microsoft Windows. She also modified the panels to accommodate new sensors and helped develop and wire a new prototype instrumentation panel.
“Our research will help the Air Force achieve mission success as they work to protect this nation,” said Hinton. “After all, a pilot relies heavily on his or her instruments.”
Over the course of the HERE program, Hinton improved her professional communication skills, gained a wealth of experience with graphical programming software LabVIEW, and cultivated a better safety mindset along with a robust professional network. Among all the program’s benefits, Hinton considered the ability to conduct hands-on research to be the most valuable.
“Being able to see where theoretical science meets real world applications was very insightful. In school, we mainly get to see the theoretical world meet the real world in small, pre-planned, pre-tested experiments. At the lab, I got to try new things, not something every student before me and every student after me will do. The challenges and difficulties weren’t always known, and it was interesting to have to think on my feet and problem solve on the spot,” said Hinton.
Hinton said she has had a positive experience in the HERE program and would recommend it to others. She would also remind future participants of a piece of wisdom her grandfather imparted onto her: you get as much out of life and its various experiences as you put into it, so give it all your all.