Research at Hazleton campus leads to summer opportunity

New friends. Stimulating experiences. Innovative research. For Robert Vitagliano, this summer includes all of the above – as part of a Penn State University undergraduate research program.

Vitagliano was selected to represent Penn State Hazleton at the University’s Multi-Campus Research Experience for Undergraduates (MC REU), an eight-week program for 50 students from 14 campuses. Vitagliano, an aerospace engineering major from Hazleton, completed his first two years of study at Penn State Hazleton and will begin his junior year at University Park in August.

Students who are participating in the REU program stay at University Park for two of the eight weeks, where they work on an individual basis with an assigned faculty adviser. During the rest of the time, Vitagliano works with Penn State Hazleton Assistant Professor of Engineering Joseph Ranalli doing fieldwork, taking measurements and analyzing the data.

The research project involves a smartphone app, developed by Ranalli, that is used to measure reduction in the available solar power due to shading. The app is used to determine the best placement of a solar panel when surveying a potential site. Using their smartphone, a user can trace buildings, trees and the skyline of a location to figure out how shade will affect the amount of sunlight a certain location receives.

“I’m hoping to show that modern smartphones have good enough sensors in them to give accurate data and that this app is an extremely inexpensive way to get the same information that would otherwise need to be measured with tools that cost thousands of dollars,” Vitagliano said.

Ranalli, who said the app is in its testing stages, explained, “The research Robert has been working on with me is to validate the tool I developed, so we can determine how accurate the app is at making the predictions. It’s a comparison of free tools and commercial tools for a solar site survey.”

As part of the research, the pair is using professional surveying equipment to take the same measurements and compare results. Vitagliano developed the proposal for his MC REU project from his sophomore-year research with Ranalli, which involved making calculations about how sensitive solar estimates are and taking shading measurements. Dr. David Starling, assistant professor of physics, has also assisted Vitagliano with his research.

At University Park, Vitagliano studies with Dr. Jeffrey Brownson, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering. The two weeks at University Park also feature sessions on professional development, resume building, networking, leadership skills and more.  

The experience draws on both independent and collaborative experiences, since Vitagliano works on his own, with a faculty adviser at both campuses and with other participants in the REU. The program concludes with a dinner and symposium at The Penn Stater in University Park at the end of July.

“It’s a really good unified group of students, which you might not expect given that it’s all individual research. It has been a great experience for leadership and team building. Even with all our individual projects, we’re all contributing to the group in our own ways,” he said.

Vitagliano said he would highly encourage other students to apply for the program. “It’s a great way to not only get started with research, but also to meet new people and develop yourself professionally as a leader. The REU will help you grow academically and as a person,” he said.

He wanted to get involved in undergraduate research at Penn State Hazleton to apply what he was learning in his studies while developing connections at the same time. Vitagliano and fellow student Mauro Notaro received first place in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) category during Penn State Hazleton’s 2016 Undergraduate Research Fair in the spring for their project, “Accuracy and Uncertainty in Shading Calculations for Solar Power.”

“Penn State Hazleton allowed me to get involved in research much sooner than I likely would have at a larger school. The faculty truly cared about me and my research on an individual level and I was able to make personal connections and know who I could go to within the campus network for different things I needed,” Vitagliano said.  

He will continue to conduct research as part of Schreyer Honors College, which requires all Schreyer Scholars to complete an honors thesis after independent research. And he will be well prepared to continue his research journey because of the opportunities he capitalized on at Penn State Hazleton for undergraduate research and connections with faculty experts.