A Minnesota Student Experiences the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program

As these stories often begin, I was on a plane. In one of the rare moment’s in a journalists life when they get to write about themselves, I had been selected as one of 171 community-college students from across the nation to be a part of the onsite experience portion of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars program, and so I was heading to St. Louis, Missouri, where I would wait for another plane that would take me to Houston, Texas, to join a band of other nerdy STEM students to collectively nerd out at Johnson Space Center and to learn about STEM to take back to our respective communities.

The wing of a plane overlooking clouds

It’s a bird, it’s a plane . . . wait, it’s a plane!

To get there, I had applied to and been placed in the online portion of the Aerospace Scholars program, which took the form of an online class consisting of six quizzes and a final project, as well as a whole lot of readings and videos. For the quizzes, I meticulously studied the material until I had passed all six quizzes with 100 percent. For the final project, we were given one of three options, and I choose to design a Mars rover, which I named BIGFOOT: Big Ice Gathering for Observation of Time, designed to take ice cores at the Martian poles. This was the most challenging part, I used every resource at my disposal to create it—my professors, my mentors from the FireBears FIRST Robotics team, my classmates, the Internet. When I turned in the project, five minutes before it was due, the references page was a hot mess. However, I got an A, and the grades from the online portion of the program were used to select the people for the onsite portion.

The bottom of a computer drawing of a robot, which looks like pentagonal oil rig on skis, with a blue highlighted box which looks like an old timey radio

BIGFOOT as shown from under the ice looking up. (It wouldn’t actually be transparent—it is just illustrated this way to show its guts.)

It was my first time on a plane, and when I arrived in Houston, I could not hear in one ear due to pressure changes, which made it surprisingly difficult to communicate effectively with my teammates. We were divided into four engineering teams, which were part of a mock engineering firm, and our task was to build a robot to do certain tasks. It was an EV3 robot, and the tasks were very similar to what one would have found in FIRST LEGO League, although made more challenging—both by the accelerated timeline of three days and by the addition of business tasks, such as dealing with a mock company budget. Our company got hit with a $1 million budget cut, which forced our team to be careful with which parts we used on our robot. It was certainly a challenge, but the challenge is what allowed me to learn things, and I was even able to apply some of the concepts from my engineering coursework, such as using statics to troubleshoot the claw on our robot.

A grey robot with binocular-like eyes looking down, claws like those of a sloth, but larger, an ant-like body, held up by wheels, with black wires, like fettuccine, tangled around the robot connecting all components

The first draft of our robot. Before the use of statics, we had problems with the rocks falling out of the robot’s claws

As a person who is genderqueer, I often feel like there are certain parts of who I am as a person that I have to leave at home, especially in STEM spaces, where often women aren’t even included, let alone genderqueer individuals. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that NASA is working toward equity and inclusion. They aren’t perfect by any means—no pronoun ribbons, and if I had a nickel for every time I had to identify my binary gender on some sort of bureaucratic paperwork, I’d have a quarter—but they worked hard on addressing women-in-STEM issues in a tactful way, such as the pervasiveness for impostor syndrome, or women often being forced into nontechnical roles on engineering teams. One of their first presentations was about the importance of equity and inclusion for all kinds of folks, including LGBT folks, and although they have a long way to go on this journey, I encourage the steps they’re taking and others, like nonbinary inclusion.

17 women with red, blue, yellow, and green shirts in vertical stripes in a typical school photo arrangement, with the author of the article notably lacking

Women in STEM at NCAS. The people at NASA were inclusive enough to allow me to sit this one out. Norah Moran/NASA

We also got to nerd out quite a bit. Jerry Woodfill, the Apollo spacecraft warning system engineer, gave a speech on the importance of perseverance in STEM. Martian geologist Kirsten Siebach gave a talk on rocks, and I bought the greatest button-y jean shirt with a NASA insignia on it in the history of button-y jean shirts with NASA insignia on them at the Starport shop. It was also super fun to meet all the other nerdy community college students from across the country—it was a collective nerdy experience.

There were quite a few workshops on employment in STEM, as in order to be employed in STEM, an internship between the sophomore and junior years is a must, but it is more difficult for community college students to pull off. The team at NASA really stressed the importance of finding an internship and introduced us to interns who work at NASA, one of whom was the awesome intern who introduced me to Sikuli, an automated tool that controls your computer, which I used later to keep my Tumblr Horse alive for a Horse Livestream to benefit the Minnesota Horse Welfare Coalition on April 1st, (here is my code).

The author in a backwards white baseball cap which flattens their long, straight dark brown hair, a yellow nametag with a blue NASA lanyard, holding a black DSLR camera up, and wearing the greatest jean shirt with a NASA insignia on it the world has ever seen

Look at this jean shirt—it’s so great. I couldn’t find the same one on NASA’s online store, but this one is pretty close.

We also got to tour NASA facilities, such as the Sonny Carter Training Facility. It was really cool how down-to-earth the people who work at NASA are.

A yellow cone which has the NASA logo on is, as well as a falling red man, and "caution" and "safety first" on the side, next to a pool.

It’s a cone—a NASA cone!


Yellow bean stretching across ceiling, with a crane attached to it, bar says DEMAC.

They have this huge pool, and they drop spaceships in it, right? So how do they get them in the pool? They have a giant crane that rolls across the ceiling!


A to-scale model of the international space station in a larger-than Olympic-sized swimming pool

They have the space station in the pool!


A huge pool in a huge room, with a row of diving gear overlooking a ledge

See that row of diving gear? If you were to walk over to that ledge and look over, you’d see a room that is about as big as two school gymnasiums, so that’s how deep this pool is. This pool is huge.


A giant rounded metal cone shaped tin can on a yellow platform. The can has a line of black squares with white dots in the middle, and a large NASA insignia

In that space the size of approximately two gymnasiums, they prepare things to get tested in the pool. Look’s like Orion’s going for a dip!

If you or a community-college student you know would like to apply for the opportunity to participate in this great program themselves, applications for fall NCAS are due June 7, 2018. Also, as you probably know, NASA and the great work that it does to inspire future generations of STEM leaders are paid for by you, the taxpayer, so I would like to humbly thank you for supporting STEM students—and also ask that if you also support NASA’s mission, especially educational programs like this, please let your local congressperson know. NASA is a huge part of nerd culture, and it does not exist without continued support from all of you.


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