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Workforce Development and Student Sandbox

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields foster job opportunities today and in the future. Emerging mission requirements pose great STEM workforce challenges, underpinning the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) ability to provide national security. IIRM-URA works to mitigate and prevent these challenges through its workforce development program.

The IIRM-URA workforce development program’s vision is to combine creative, challenging technical projects with meaningful student-faculty, student-industry, student-national labs interactions, enabling a STEM workforce development pipeline.

The two key, interrelated components of the student pipeline development activity are (1) the development of effective, dynamic strategies for student recruitment, and (2) the development of a scalable framework of student sandbox processes and tools.

There are four main, interconnected thrust areas within the IIRM workforce development plan: rotations, teaching modules, outreach activities, and competitions.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are our chosen outreach platform, and there are many analogies to flight in all of our workforce development thrust areas. Successful quadcopter flight is all about the ability to provide even, complimentary energy to each of the four propellers, and the same can be said for our approach to balancing and managing each aspect of workforce development.

Thrust Areas


The goal of the rotation thrust area is to advance, educate, and provide rotation opportunities for all Alliance members through short- and long-term temporary assignments across the Alliance to foster and facilitate collaboration and professional development. 

Rotations take many forms, including student internships, faculty sabbaticals, visiting scholar positions, and hosting Alliance members at unique facilities to name a few. In 2021, the IIRM URA hosted 12 NSERC interns across five locations in the Alliance. 

Learn more about the 2021 internship program here

Teaching Modules

The teaching module thrust area where the research, basic science, and educational components of the entire IIRM alliance are introduced to workforce development. We are developing educational content tailored to secondary students, undergrads, graduate students, and research partners. In 2021, the IIRM URA began a seminar series designed to create and promulgate a series of lectures in IIRM technology areas, given by subject matter experts across the Alliance. Some of those modules are aimed specifically at our students in the outreach program, and to that effect, the teaching modules are the building blocks to outreach. The IIRM URA has partnered with PITSCO, a K-12 STEM-focused education and curriculum company, to build a series of teaching modules and activities for high school students that teach students IIRM relevant basic STEM principles by using a UAV platform.

Outreach Activities

Our Outreach initiatives are focused on reaching students outside of the Alliance, with a focus on teaching IIRM and STEM concepts designed to inspire, guide, collaborate, network, and educate. Teaching STEM enables undecided students to make vital connections between everyday life and the STEM disciplines. It also lays down the foundations for future academic success because the skills learned are transferable to many subjects. There is also a direct connection between STEM education and mentorship and a higher rate of matriculation of underrepresented groups, like women, in college engineering and science majors.

Our approach with outreach is to bring IIRM teaching modules and competition frameworks to existing outreach programs across the Alliance in order to maximize our use of existing networks and student engagement.

A key outreach partner for IIRM in 2021 was the Sea, Air, and Land Challenge (SeAL Challenge). The IIRM Workforce development team partnered with the SeAL Challenge to develop a new Air Challenge, where the mission was both IIRM and DTRA focused. Students are challenged to build a quadcopter with a payload (camera) that simulates a radiation sensor, to allow first responders to safely determine if a recent explosion in a metropolitan area has released radioactive elements, and to drop markers on “hot spots” to indicate a radiation danger zone to serve as a warning to ground crews.

Sea Air and Land (SeAL) Challenge

The Sea Air and Land (SeAL) Challenge gives teams of students the opportunity to learn about the engineering process through the design of a robotics system relevant to the DoD. The web-delivered, low-cost program is one semester and available to graduates or those currently enrolled in a postsecondary program, provides engineering mentors and a choice of missions to student teams:

  • Sea: Develop a submersible to search a sunken unmanned underwater vehicle for clues to an accident.
  • Air: Build a payload for a quadcopter that can determine if radioactive elements are present.
  • Land: Build a robot that can deliver supplies to people trapped in a city building after an earthquake.

Student Competitions

The goal of student competitions is to provide a fun, engaging platform for students to learn about science and engineering principles within the IIRM research areas: materials, devices, and survivability and response. The annual IIRM Student Challenge provides an educational opportunity for all students within the IIRM Alliance to learn more about some of the fundamentals of the research throughout the Alliance, in a fun, competition-based platform. The student challenge will be hosted each year at the IIRM Annual Technical Review.

The concept behind the competition is to take a platform—unmanned aerial vehicles—and use it as a delivery mechanism for teaching modules, or basic research/science or engineering concepts that are central to the work being performed in IIRM. We chose UAVs in collaboration with DTRA for multiple reasons:

  1. DTRA values the use of UAVs in their deter, detect, and defend mission against WMD,
  2. Unmanned platforms are an area of interest for students and an explosive area of growth in educational curriculum at the moment, and 3. We believe they are an excellent platform to build meaningful competitions and to foster collaborations between students and the IIRM Alliance.

For 2021, Penn State hosted the inaugural Student Challenge on a virtual platform. Students flew a UAV, or drone, in a simulated environment to learn about the fundamentals and real-life limitations of radiation sensors. Researchers from IIRM research devices and integration research area, provided the fundamental physics and scientific information to build in the learning component of this challenge.

The focus for the competition was within the devices research area—“How do radiation sensors work?”

The educational goals for the first year competition were to:

  • Learn about who DTRA is and how DTRA supports responses to a radiological threat
  • Learn about the uses of UAVs and the basics of how to conduct UAV operations
  • Learn the basics of flight for a UAV
  • Receive basic education on radiation sensing technologies
  • Learn some practical considerations for the use of radiation sensing technologies in the field (dwell time; establishing a background; sensor-based weight and power consumption)
  • Understand the importance of mission planning, specifically the criticality of developing a plan prior to execution in order to succeed with respect to resource management.

 Learn more about the 2021 competition here

Student Poster Session


Thirty-one students participated in the student poster session at the 2021 IIRM Technical Review, showcasing their research and recent results with professors and government representatives.

Judges: Jeff Black, Peter Chapman, Areg Anagoulian, Marek Flaska, Jinsong Huang, Igor Jovanovic, Mercouri Kanatzidis, Ju Li, Azaree Lintereur, David Petersen, Sayeef Salahuddin, David Wehe, Douglas Wolfe


  • First Place: Patrick Skrodzki, University of Michigan
  • Second Place: Stephanie Bennett, University of Surrey
  • Third Place: Justin Reiss, Penn State


  • Patrick Albert, Penn State
  • Suad Alghamdi, University of Surrey
  • Stephanie Bennett, University of Surrey
  • Isabel Braddock, University of Surrey
  • Hannah Dattilo, Fisk University
  • Michael De Siena, Northwestern University
  • Lauren Finney, University of Michigan
  • Aaron Fjeldsted, Penn State
  • Xiaoyu Guan, University of Florida
  • Nathan Harris, Brigham Young University
  • Suneel Joglekar, University of Michigan
  • Emily Kwapis & Kyle Latty, University of Florida
  • Zhifu Liu, Northwestern University
  • Amethyst Massaquoi, Clark Atlanta University
  • Lauren Nagel, University of Michigan
  • Jefferson Sesler & Nikhil Gupta, MIT
  • Joseph O'Neill, University of Surrey
  • Joshua Peterson, University of Kentucky
  • Matthew Petryk, University of Michigan
  • Evan Poff, Brigham Young University
  • Md Abu Jafar Rasel, Penn State
  • Justin Reiss, Penn State
  • Anwesha Saha, University of Michigan
  • Patrick Skrodzki, University of Michigan
  • Sergei Stepanoff, Penn State
  • Wesley Stirk, Brigham Young University
  • Stuti Surani, Penn State University
  • Navnidhi Upadhyay, University of Notre Dame
  • Drew Vecchio, University of Michigan
  • Xinyi Xia, University of Florida
  • Yilun Zhu, University of Michigan


Research thrusts

Contact information:

  • Lead: Meghan Hayes, Penn State

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The Interaction of Ionizing Radiation with Matter, University Research Alliance leadership group is called the Technical Management Group (TMG). The TMG collaboratively lead the alliance and assist the cooperative agreement manager (CAM) and the program manager (PM) in carrying out their duties concerning the IIRM-URA. The corresponding research area (RA) government technical points of contact (TPOCs) will collaboratively lead the RAs through the TMG.

Interaction of Ionizing Radiation with Matter University Research Alliance

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802