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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.