The NCAS Spring 2016 project managers pose with their rovers

Thursday, April 14

3 p.m. - Firsts and Thanks ... Until Next Time

Once the group photos were taken and the rovers dismantled, students gathered in the conference room where they had spent most of the last four days. Where rover parts, notebooks and laptops once stood, now it was just 40 suitcases laying in wait for the return home. But the experience wouldn’t end until awards and several rounds of thanks were given to the organizers, mentors and students who made the experience possible – and as program coordinators Roslyn Soto and Eddie Gonzales were sure to point out, contributed to a number of firsts for the National Community College Aerospace Scholars program.

The networking challenge and planetarium show were among some of the firsts. As was the first female majority among the team’s project managers (three of four were women) as well as the number of women participating in the on-site experience overall.

The women of NCAS Spring 2016
The women of NCAS Spring 2016 pose for a photo with their teams' rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

By the time the winning team was announced, the students were so full with congratulations that they seemed to have almost forgotten there was a winning team at all. But it didn’t dull the Blue Team’s celebration when, without further ado, they were announced as the winners by (another first) the smallest margin ever.

The Blue Team and their mentor, Amelia Quon, celebrate their win
The Blue Team celebrates their win (left) along with their mentor Amelia Quon (right). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

Soto and Gonzales said the level of teamwork – even between teams – was one of the biggest standouts of this session of NCAS and urged future teams to take note.

“The collaboration between teams was a thing of beauty,” said Gonzales. "It felt more like one huge team versus four individual teams. They helped each other in every facet of the competition and were graceful and showed incredible sportsmanship like I've never witnessed before."

With round after round of applause and standing ovations for Soto and Gonzales, the students, mentors and program coordinators said their final goodbyes, and by 2 p.m., the once hectic conference room was dark and quite … that is until the next crop of hopeful students arrives this fall.

> Learn more about NCAS and apply for the Fall 2016 session

> See a collection of photos from the Spring 2016 session

> Explore all the internship and fellowship programs at JPL and apply

10 a.m. - The Final Challenge

A student raises his hand to ask a question of the NCAS Green Team
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

Today, on the fourth and final day of the NCAS on-site experience, students had one more challenge before the scores were tallied. They had five minutes to make a presentation to a mock "NASA Headquarters panel” about why their rover mission should be green-lighted. Channeling their inner Steve Jobs, the teams used music, videos, lighting and of course their rovers to make their case.

The Gold Team impressed with their marketing video that used two LEGO figurines (borrowed from their mentor) to tell a story about two people on a quest to add a rover to their family.

The Gold Team presents their mission
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

The Red Team started their presentation with a dance and later presented “scholarship certificates” from their reserved education budget to the JPL Education Office staff and other NCAS helpers.

The Red Team presents their mission
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

The Blue Team got laughs for a slide on their mission objectives, which was introduced by audio of Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant saying, “Success on success on success.”

The Blue Team presents their mission
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

And the Green Team, which took the either coveted or dreaded task of being first to present, showcased their teamwork by sharing the stage to present the various facets of their mission.

The Green Team presents their mission
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

When presentations were over, it was time for the customary group photos and then perhaps the hardest part of the on-site experience: dismantling the rovers and packing up.

The Spring 2016 NCAS group poses for a photo on the mall at JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

A member of the Red Team deconstructs the team's rover
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kim Orr

Wednesday, April 13

6:30 p.m. - Mission Two

It’s less than an hour away from the second and final mission for the teams' rovers. Tonight, the rovers must autonomously retrieve and rescue a stranded “Mars Buggy” from the simulated Mars surface. While the challenge involves a different set of commands and even changes in the design of the rovers, the lessons students learned from last night’s mission are ever present. We asked the teams to share the single biggest lesson they’re taking into tonight’s challenge:

“If we try our best, we can succeed.” – #GreenTeam

The Green Team poses for a group photo in front of the Mars Curiosity rover model at JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

“Simplicity and planning are key.” – #BlueTeam

The Blue Team poses for a group photo in front of the Mars Curiosity rover model at JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

"No matter how much we plan for every scenario, at the end of the day, it's inevitable that mistakes will come up. As a team, we learned to push forward through the doubts and frustrations. For tonight, we will use this lesson to enhance our troubleshooting.” – #GoldTeam

The Gold Team poses for a group photo in front of the Mars Curiosity rover model at JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

“We must embrace the unexpected difficulties” – #RedTeam

The Red Team poses for a group photo in front of the Mars Curiosity rover model at JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

5:30 p.m. – Meet the Mentors

Each NCAS team works with a mentor who helps guide students with not just the mission at hand, but also their career missions. With four fully packed days of activities and challenges, it can be a big time commitment – especially since mentors are scientists and engineers themselves, and have their own missions and projects competing for their attention. But as we found out when we caught up with the mentors for this session, it’s well worth the hectic four days.

Amelia Quon - #BlueTeam

Amelia Quon helps a student on her team
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

What do you do at JPL?

I am a mechanical integration engineer. My group builds the tools used to assemble and test spacecraft, as well as helping with the assembly and testing process. I’m currently working on a thermal-vacuum test where we’re using the 25-ft space simulator to mimic Martian atmospheric pressure, which is less than 1 percent of sea level atmospheric pressure on Earth.

How long have you been an NCAS mentor and what made you want to become one?

I’ve been an NCAS mentor since 2012. I enjoy helping the students gain confidence in their problem-solving skills as they work through the (rock and rover retrieval) missions. I participated in NASA’s High School Aerospace Scholars program as a high school student and had a great experience, so it’s nice to be able to support the program and help create similarly positive memories for the students.

How would you describe your mentoring style?

As a mentor, I try to clarify the parameters of the (rock and rover retrieval) missions for the students. I help them develop strategies for programming and building their rovers, and ask questions to encourage them to reason through problems they encounter.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles your team has faced so far and how are you overcoming them?

While testing their rover, my team discovered that many of the rocks they picked up were falling out of their basket. They went through several iterations of building and testing new designs before they came up with a design that performed as intended.

What do you most want students to take away from their experience?

I want them to realize that everyone on an engineering team is integral to the team’s success, and that setbacks and challenges can be overcome.

Luz Martinez Sierra - #GoldTeam

Luz Martinez Sierra speaks with students on her team
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

What do you do at JPL?

I am in the Natural Space Environments group. We are in charge of defining the radiation and debris environment that the spacecraft will encounter in space. This is very important to evaluate the risks so the designer and engineers can take the necessary measurements to avoid any failure. I am also involved with the nuclear physics instruments that are used to determine the composition of other planetary bodies or to better understand the radiation environments in space. I am also a part-time Nuclear Engineering Ph.D student at Texas A&M. I am trying to finish my Ph.D while still being a full-time employee at JPL.

How long have you been an NCAS mentor and what made you want to become one?

This is the first time I’ve been involved with NCAS, and I am loving it.

How would you describe your mentoring style?

I think I can relate with the young student quite easily. I have a younger sister, and I have done mentorships in the past. I like to get to know students and make a safe environment for them to ask me questions and to not be afraid of participation. I like to show them a strong attitude without making them scared of me. I want them to feel like they are in a collaborative atmosphere. I don’t have all the answers, but I am there to guide them in finding the answers.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles your team has faced so far and how are you overcoming them?

We had a rough start with issues regarding the division of the work. There was not a clear line between who was in charge of what, and they were focusing in one task instead of approaching it at different angles. We talked, and I encouraged the project manager to assign responsibilities and to try to make sure they still communicate with the team promptly.

What do you most want students to take away from their experience?

I want them to feel comfortable with their career, and show them that it is possible to achieve their dreams. Also I want them to realize how much can be accomplished in a few days, and make them confident of their capabilities. I want to see them succeed in life and in a professional way. They are wonderful young adults ready to take the challenge. They just need to hear it and believe it.

Otto Polanco - #GreenTeam

Otto Palonco speaks with students on his team
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

What do you do at JPL?

I am a mechanical engineer in the payload development group. I work with engineers across different disciplines to develop instruments and complete system payloads for various customers that come to JPL for this type of development.

How long have you been an NCAS mentor and what made you want to become one?

Since the beginning. Five years now. Wow. Already. Simple. When I was in High school, Dr. Jeff Martin, a principal for LAUSD, provided guidance on what college life was all about, how to be successful, and how to prepare for a career. Unfortunately, Dr. Martin passed away from cancer a year and a half later, but my time with him was invaluable, as he opened my eyes to the possibilities of what my future could be.

How would you describe your mentoring style?

Aggressive and hopeful, like Dr. Martin, but with a twist. No excuses. Failure is an option, but NO Quitting is permitted. I’m encouraging and pass on words of wisdom and lessons learned since my start as an intern here at JPL.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles your team has faced so far and how are you overcoming them?

Organization, laptop and programming the rover. They got organized by coming together as a team with a single leader and co-leader. Programming was done with paper and pen, then executed flawlessly when a laptop became available through great communication and team work. They have asked for help when they got stuck and/or looked bewildered. They are nervous, but they work hard and smile.

What do you most want students to take away from their experience?

Blow by the sky limit and reach for the stars. Do not place limits on what you and your future will accomplish.

Steve Edberg - #RedTeam

Steve Edberg speaks to his team
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

What do you do at JPL?

My career has been “bipolar."  About half of the 36+ years I’ve been at JPL, I have worked on flight missions, from development to flight operations. The other half has been in education and public outreach. Both have been good for each other and for the projects I’ve worked on and the people I have interacted with.

How long have you been an NCAS mentor and what made you want to become one?

I have been a mentor for four or five sessions, starting in 2010 or 2011.

How would you describe your mentoring style?

For the competition, I help, encourage and suggest options. For the individuals on the team (and anyone else in earshot), I share experiences, suggest ways to successfully get into STEM as a career, and describe what we do as a human endeavor, including the anecdotes that prove it.

What are some of the challenges or obstacles your team has faced so far and how are you overcoming them?

There were not enough computers ready at the start of the design/build day. The Red Team agreed to wait for delivery of theirs, but that took much longer than expected, and it wasn’t ready to use and needed technicians to get the software working as designed. This delay strongly affected the software team and limited their ability to make a more complete set of command routines. The software team built sufficient routines for the rock retrieval challenge by making maximum use of the software and technology available for the challenge. To their credit, they did this on their own.

What do you most want students to take away from their experience?

I want them to remember this as a taste of the real thing. I want them to realize that finding what THEY want to do (individually) is what they should aim for, and that they should aim high.  They should come away knowing that space exploration, and each part of STEM, whether exploring space or not, is a wonderful, challenging, and joyous way to spend a lifetime.

2 p.m. - Networking Challenge

Students spent the morning touring the Space Flight Operations Facility, also known as mission control, and the Mars Yard, a simulated Mars terrain where engineers test maneuvers for the Curiosity rover.

NCAS students watch a show in the inflatable planetarium
Students also saw a show in our educational inflatable planetarium. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

Then it was time to get up close and personal with the people of JPL during NCAS' first-ever Networking Challenge. Shannon Barger of JPL's Education Office came up with the idea for the challenge: "The best way to move forward [at JPL and in your career] is to get your name out there and have connections."

So, armed with questionnaires (that served as networking icebreakers of a sort) students caught up with JPLers as they were out in full: during lunch.

NCAS students networking during lunch at JPL.
Students participated in NCAS' first-ever Networking Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

It turned out that JPLers were just as excited to talk to NCAS students as the students were to talk to JPLers. More than a few students were asked for their resumes and others left with promises to attend the presentations tomorrow. The students said they were impressed by the diversity of people and careers at JPL, which they learned can include such things as ripple effect engineering and planetary science.

NCAS students networking during lunch at JPL
Students went from table to table at the JPL cafeteria during lunchtime to ask employees about their careers and what inspired them. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

"I love that you can go talk to anyone at JPL and they'll talk to you for an hour about what they do," said Scott Hall, a member of the Green Team who's studying mechanical engineering and physics at Ohlone College in Fremont, California.

Roslyn Soto and Eddie Gonzales, who manage the NCAS program for JPL, said they hope to make the challenge a regular part of the on-site experience.

Tuesday, April 12

9:35 p.m. – Mission One

After a full day of listening to inspirational speakers, building rovers, programming them and testing them, the teams were ready for their first mission. One by one, each team brought their rover to the mission site where they were given a two-minute trial run followed by one minute to make modifications to their rover. Once the modification window elapsed, teams had 10 minutes to command their rover to autonomously collect as many rock samples as possible.

Having completed the mission, teams retired for the evening, their scores to be calculated and added to the cumulative total at the end of the program.

A team's rover collects rocks on the simulated Mars surface
The gold team's rover collects rock samples during its 10-minute scored mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

The green team cheers for their rover
The green team cheers as their rover returns a rock sample to home base. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

5:45 p.m. – What's Your Strategy?

While each team has the same mission in mind, their approach and strategy can vary wildly. The team members’ personalities and experience, their mentor and any challenges they face along the way all make an impact on the outcome of their final mission. Tonight, the teams will compete in their first mission, which involves programming their rovers to autonomously collect and transport rock samples on the simulated Mars terrain. As the teams learned earlier in the day from Mars rover engineer Rob Manning, it all comes down to the team with the most thorough design and testing – plus a bit of luck. We wondered what each team's strategy or motto is going into the challenge, so we asked them to describe it in five words or fewer. Here’s what they said:

NCAS 2016 Red Team at JPL  “Every action requires team heart” – #RedTeam

NCAS 2016 Blue Team at JPL  “Simple, efficient, applicable, logical science” – #BlueTeam

NCAS 2016 Green Team at JPL  “Forward, drop, drag” – #GreenTeam

NCAS 2016 Gold Team at JPL  “Off-world specimen cache and retrieval” – #GoldTeam

Tell us which one is your favorite and wish them luck on Facebook and Twitter, using #NCAS2016 and the team hashtag.

3 p.m. – Their Mission, Should They Choose to Accept It

The blue teams discusses their project

The red team gathers to discuss their mission. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

As soon as students arrived at JPL yesterday, they began working on what will be their mission for the next three days: building a working Mars rover prototype that can perform two separate missions on a simulated Mars terrain. The rover doesn't look like much. It's an amalgamation of LEGOs and a programming console. And the Mars terrain consists of red floor tiles with sand, colored rocks and a faux Olympus Mons. But despite the looks of it all, the challenge is just about as close as it gets to the real thing.

NCAS rover parts

Teams must use parts from a LEGO Mindstorm kit to design and build their rovers. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

NCAS rover
The rovers must be able to successfully complete two mission challenges: collecting and transporting samples, and retrieving and rescuing a stranded "Mars Buggy." Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

The students are divided into four teams, each lead by a JPL mentor, and are assigned project roles such as project manager, software engineer, even marketing and communications manager. On Day One, teams are given a $600 million budget to build a rover that can successfully complete two missions: gather and transport sample rocks, and later rescue and retrieve a stranded "Mars Buggy." They then have to design and build their rovers using a LEGO Mindstorm kit with various parts that are each assigned a dollar value. They are allowed to purchase and sell parts from other teams, but they can't exceed their budget. Monetary fines and bonuses are given for things like losing equipment (fine) or asking good questions (bonus). Teams are also awarded money for performing successful maneuvers during their missions.

NCAS budget
Students are given fines and bonuses that may help or detract from their overall mission budget of $600 million. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

On the final day of their experience, teams will make final presentations to a mock NASA mission selection panel, during which they will have to explain their rover's scientific objective and sell their design.

"We push them to take on roles outside of their comfort zones, to speak up and have their voice heard and to learn from each other," said Roslyn Soto, who along with Eddie Gonzales helps manage the program for JPL. "We want students to have a good understanding of the kind of teamwork that is required in engineering and other STEM fields and walk away with a better understanding of the research and career opportunities available to them."

12 p.m. – Lessons from a Career Mars Rover Engineer

Rob Manning giving a talk during the NCAS Spring 2016 session

Mars rover chief engineer Rob Manning gives a talk to students. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

The students took a break from building their rovers to hear a talk by Rob Manning, the chief engineer for the Mars Curiosity rover. Manning has been a Mars rover engineer since the Pathfinder mission of the 1990s, which landed Sojourner, the first rover ever on the Red Planet.

He shared his experiences designing and building rovers for NASA and how the process has evolved during his 35 years at the laboratory.

"Can you believe that JPL started building its first spacecraft the year I was born, 1958. These people were building spacecraft without the use of computers. Everything was done by hand. So if you wanted to design [a spacecraft], you had to draw out all the details on a piece of paper."

On building spacecraft for Mars, he said:

"What I like about building spacecraft for Mars is you can build it, design it, test it and launch it, and in seven months, it's on Mars. So the very same people who thought of it, can operate it."

Students used the opportunity to ask Manning about some of the more creative engineering solutions his teams have come up with over the years, such as the bounce landing used for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.

"Back then people thought we were really goofy by doing that. 'So you're going to land how many times?' Imagine dropping your spaceship from 23 meters on another planet."

He stressed the importance of designing spacecraft with potential issues in mind, but said a lot of it comes down to luck.

"Sometimes you get lucky. And the trick is to design your systems so you think of these things. In many respects, what happens on the day of landing is out of our control. In some sense, the future has already happened because if it doesn’t work, it’s because of something we missed or we didn’t test ahead of time."

11 a.m. – Welcome NCAS 2016 Students!

NCAS Spring 2016 student teams discuss their project

Forty community college students are participating in the Spring 2016 on-site experience at JPL as part of NASA's National Community College Aerospace Scholars program. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lyle Tavernier

Forty community college students descended on NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory yesterday for a four-day experience and engineering competition hosted by NASA's National Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, program. The program, which consists of a five-week online course, webinars with NASA scientists and engineers, a project planning a mission to Mars, and the opportunity to qualify for a four-day on-site experience at a NASA center, is designed to give community college students a window into science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers at NASA. Of the nearly 300 accepted for the online workshop, 120 are invited for an on-site experience at a NASA center.

This week JPL, Johnson Space Center, Armstrong Flight Research Center and Stennis Space Center are hosting 40 students each for the Spring 2016 on-site experience, during which student teams will compete to win a fictional mission contract for a future Mars rover. Teams must design and build their rovers using a LEGO Mindstorm kit, test them on a simulated Mars surface and finally sell their mission concept to a panel of NASA experts. Each of the four teams at JPL is guided by a laboratory engineer, who will mentor them throughout the competition. 

Follow all the action this week here and on Twitter using the hashtag #NCAS2016.

TAGS: NCAS, Community College, Programs, Workshops, STEM, Robotics, Engineering

  • NASA/JPL Edu

NCAS students Arlene Lopez, Khanh Pham, Jose Salinas, Arleena Faith and Laura Medina

Animated gif of miniature rovers driving through an obstacle course

Four miniature rovers will go head-to-head this week at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as community college students across the state - and one from Hawaii - get a first-hand look at what it's like to work on a robotic space mission.

Wednesday marked the start of the fall 2014 session of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, or NCAS, program, a three-day workshop designed to give community college students a window into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics universe and launch them into future internships and careers at NASA.

To qualify, students took a five-week online course on Mars exploration and were tasked with designing a rover to explore a Red Planet destination of their choosing.

"I focused on the sustainable efforts side," said Arleena Faith, a computer science student at Santa Monica College, who's working on bringing her design skills into the Web development world. "You spend billions of dollars building one of these sophisticated rovers and suddenly it hits something, and you've lost it. So why don't you have a small rover that's like a ball. It rolls everywhere and it helps determine whether the terrain is safe enough for the main rover."

Based on their scores from the design challenge and online course, 40 finalists were chosen to take part in the workshop at JPL. Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, are also hosting their own NCAS student teams this week.

While at the NASA centers, students meet with engineers and scientists, and teams compete in their biggest challenge yet: Building a rover that can navigate through everything from a simulated Martian terrain to budget constraints to win the coveted "mission contract."

The rovers are only about the size of a brick, but they carry a heavy load: The futures of aspiring engineers and scientists.

For Laura Medina, a 24-year-old aeronautical engineering student at San Bernardino Community College, participating in NCAS is a chance to prove to herself that she can.

"At first I was nervous because I feel like I've never been smart enough," said Medina, who after dropping out of high school to help her mom take care of her younger siblings, decided to get her GED and enroll in college so she could fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. "But I've gotten this far. I've been able to do these things on my own."

For other students at the brink of their next educational leap, it's about getting a push in the right direction.

"I'm sure this experience will help me home in on what type of career I want to go into," said Arlene Lopez, a mechanical engineering student at El Camino College. "I'm leaning toward working with spacecraft."

Khanh Pham is pursuing her lifelong interest in mathematics at Orange Coast College and hopes to become a teacher -- unless, she says, NCAS changes her mind.

Right now, my career goal is to become a math teacher," said Pham, a 39-year-old mother of two who emigrated from Vietnam a little more than two years ago. "But somebody told me that maybe after this trip, I'll want to change my major to aerospace engineering."

Student teams met for the first time on Wednesday to begin preparations for the rover competition, but for many, the draw of seeing a NASA center in person and working with professional engineers and scientists is just as exciting.

"I'm just looking forward to going to JPL," said aerospace and mechanical engineering student Jose Salinas, who's in his second year at Bakersfield Community College. "It'll be my first time at any NASA center, so I'm just really excited. I think nervousness is out the window. I'm just really stoked to go."

For more information on the NCAS program and to apply, visit:

Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships 

NCAS is funded by NASA, managed by the Johnson Space Center, and coordinated locally by the JPL Education Office.

TAGS: NCAS, NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars, Community College, Internships & Fellowships, Robotics

  • Kim Orr

Ciara Lynton poses with her summer project

Ciara Lynton at JPL

Ciara Lynton is no stranger to the limelight. The 19-year-old electrical engineering major has been featured in a number of magazines for her academic and leadership accomplishments. So it was no surprise that she soared, arms first, into her internship at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. With a team of three other interns, Lynton is working with a highly innovative and cutting-edge contraption: the BioSleeve.

"The BioSleeve is a gesture-based interface that will be used to translate muscle movement and activity into robot control," Lynton said. "We want to use the BioSleeve to be able to control robots and prosthetic limbs." Her team is hopeful that the apparatus will be used by astronauts in the near future. As of now, Lynton is making significant strides in assisting the development of the innovative mechanism, working on system integration and hardware design. 

Lynton will soon start her junior year at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Although a number of factors lead her into the electrical engineering field, Lynton says her love of electronics and computers was the driving force. "And I get to make a difference," she said.

Lynton's inquisitive nature was unveiled at the tender age of six when she disassembled her first computer -- unbeknownst to her mother. "Growing up, I would always play 'Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego' and 'Reader Rabbit,' so I really wanted to know the makeup of the computer and how it operated," said Lynton, who was born and raised in Baltimore. She reassembled the computer after her careful assessment, and it still worked. "My mom was not the happiest, but that's when she knew," said Lynton of her tech-savvy capabilities.

Lynton is a recipient of NASA's Minority University Research and Education Program fellowship, which provides academic stipends and internships to underrepresented students completing undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in an effort to diversify the STEM workforce. "The most challenging obstacle I had to face was getting the scholarship because there was a lot of competition," said Lynton. Her effort came to avail when she received an email from her mentor, Christopher Assad, asking if she would like to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime internship opportunity with JPL's Mobility and Robotic Systems group. "I really like NASA and robotics, so I was like, 'Yea!'" she said.

This isn't Lynton's first time venturing into unknown terrains. Last summer, she participated in a cyber-security internship offered through her school's research lab. And she has her sights set on exploring even more places her major might take her. "I try to do a different [internship] each year -- get as much exposure as I can before I have to lock down a specific interest for graduate school," she said.

For now, the summer intern is thoroughly enjoying her experience at JPL, "Working with the BioSleeve is really rewarding, plus everybody here is really friendly and the environment is very laid back."

TAGS: Electrical Engineering, BioSleeve, Robotics, Morgan State University, Women in STEM

  • Alexis Drake

Lorenia Jimenez Miramontes works on a quadrotor at JPL

Lorenia Jimenez Miramontes poses with Axel

On my second "first day" as an intern at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I felt a very different kind of nervousness from my first internship, last summer. I still had butterflies, and I didn't know what my team would be like, but I also felt very comfortable with what I was about to encounter -- even the long daily commute from Orange County. As I sat through student orientation, I once again found myself thinking about how I got here, and I'm still in disbelief! Two years ago, I was sitting in my algebra class at Santa Ana College, a digital arts major, when I learned about my school's Bridge to Engineering Program (B2E). The rapid evolution of computers and the amazing things that technology makes possible have always astounded me. I love art, but I decided I wanted to use my artistic abilities to create something that was useful and innovative, as well as attractive. Through the B2E program, I saw the opportunity to choose a major that I originally thought would be too difficult to take on as a returning student (who had been away from school for over 10 years) a wife, and mother of two. So I changed my major to software engineering.

B2E provides a lot of support that will allow me to fulfill the math courses I require to transfer to a four-year-university as a software engineering major. And it was through B2E that I learned about the opportunity to apply for a robotics internship with JPL's Minority Student Programs in 2013 -- even though I was only starting my freshman year as a software engineering major. Last summer, my assignment was to help test an extreme-terrain rover prototype called Axel. With my team and my mentor, Issa Nesnas, I developed test plans for the rover; I designed and constructed dust barriers for its three on-board cameras (the cone-shaped barrier alleviated potential glitches with video transmissions); and, I helped conduct remote tests of the rover, driving it "blindly" (using only the rover's images and telemetry to direct it) down the hills above JPL.

Driving the Axel rover was one of the most exciting and at the same time nerve-wracking things I have ever done. Just imagine: You're only a freshman, this is your first internship, and your mentor says to you, "Here, drive this rover, worth thousands of dollars, blindly down the slopes and through the trees. Just make sure you don't break it." Pretty awesome, right? I must have done OK, because my internship was extended. It was one of the most rewarding, exciting and exhausting things I have ever done.

After I finished my internship, I confirmed that software was what I wanted to do. I also wanted to learn more about everything I did over the summer, so I took my first robotics class when I returned to school.
My experience at JPL was so incredible that without thinking about the long commute, I decided to apply again. And I feel very fortunate to be here two years in a row, just as excited as the first time, absorbing everything I possibly can from everyone I meet and everything I see. I'm in the robotics section again, this time working with quadrotors alongside my mentor, Roland Brockers. My teammates and I are producing materials for a research video and designing a graphical user interface (i.e., a way for humans to interact with a computer system) for micro air vehicle (MAV) control. My team's dynamic this year is very different than the last. It's a bigger group. All the guys are great. They are all very smart, and I'm learning a lot from them.

What I've learned during both of my internships is that there is nothing like hands-on experience. Practice is crucial to learning programming; and, team work and a good group dynamic are vital to a project's success.

I still walk around JPL in awe, but it feels more and more familiar every day. I am still in junior college and most of the interns I've met are either seniors or recent graduates from prestigious four-year universities.  Some might think it would be intimidating, but I feel lucky to be surrounded by such intelligent people -- people who I can learn from. My experience as a summer intern here has only reinforced my desire to continue with my education and tackle any obstacles that the journey brings to one day have a job that I love -- one that challenges me and teaches me something new every day. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this unforgettable experience and for the support I receive from my family to fulfill this incredible dream. It is amazing knowing that my sons associate everything space related to their mommy. I love that.

Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships

TAGS: Student Stories, Bridge to Engineering, Engineering, Robotics, Internships & Fellowships, Santa Ana College, Women in STEM


An emcee gets the crowd pumped up as students prepare their robots for the competition

Soaring strains of the American and Chilean national anthems kicked off the 2014 FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition Los Angeles Regional Qualifier. Cheers from students of both nations erupted during the event's closing ceremonies, when it was revealed they would move on in competition.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., sponsored 10 teams from Southern California at this competition as part of NASA's Robotics Alliance Project. JPL also oversaw volunteer coordination for the event and provided 30 volunteer workers, including judges, referees, field re-setter and game announcer.

All 66 high school robotics teams competing in the L.A. qualifier, held March 21 and 22 at the Long Beach Arena in Long Beach, Calif., were vying for spots at the FIRST Robotics Competition World Championships to be held in St. Louis, April 23-26.

Winning teams progressing to championships include:
- Team 2576, Chilean Heart--Corporacion Corazon Technologico y Cientifico de Chile
- Team 3309, Friarbots--Servite, Connelly and Rosary high schools, Anaheim, Calif.
- Team 4997, The Golden Machine--Long Beach Polytechnic and Woodrow Wilson High School, Long Beach, Calif.
- Team 1717, D'Penguineers--Dos Pueblos High School Engineering Academy, Goleta, Calif.
- Team 5124, West Torrance Robotics--West Torrance High School, Torrance, Calif.
- Team 294, Beach Cities Robotics--Redondo Union and Mira Costa High Schools, Redondo Beach, Calif.

The 2014 challenge, "Aerial Assist," is played between two alliances of three teams each. Each alliance tries to score as many balls in goals as possible during a two-minute-and-30-second match. Additional points are earned by robots working together to score goals, and by throwing and catching balls over a truss suspended just over five feet above the floor as they move the ball down the field.

More information and a short video about FIRST are at:

Detailed match results and the complete list of award winners are available at:

More information on NASA's Robotics Alliance Project is at:

TAGS: FIRST Robotics, Team Competitions, Robotics


Andrew Crawford interviews Jaime Waydo

Two weeks before I returned to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for my second internship working on projects with the Deep Space Network and the Department of Defense, something special happened. I was poised to present my research from JPL and Montana State University's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory -- where I've been building cube-satellites while going to school -- as part of the Montana Space Grant Consortium Research Symposium. The crowd was full of distinguished scientists and professors, but there was one face that stood out among the rest. She helped send robots to Mars, she's a famous public speaker, and she has a passion for space exploration. But more than that, her perseverance and drive are an inspiration to me. (Plus, like me, she's from Montana!)

The face I was looking at was that of Jaime Waydo, the mobility team lead mechanical systems engineer for NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to land on Mars on August 5. An MSU mechanical engineering alum, Jaime went through the same program and schooling that I'm going through and was returning to her alma mater to speak to the next generation of explorers and engineers after working on two successful Mars rover missions and leading the mobility team on a third. Space Grant, the program that brought me to JPL for my internship, thought it would be a great idea that Jaime and I meet. (Little did I know she would be listening to my speeches!) What follows is our conversation, which not only highlighted the power of education -- and my JPL internship -- but also reaffirmed my passion to reach for the stars.

Me: Do you giggle every night when you go to bed knowing that you work for JPL?

Jaime: Umm, yes ... a little bit. I remember one time my boss looked at me and said, "Jaime, you've been putting in a ton of hours, we can get you some overtime pay," and I looked at him and I said, "I can't believe I get paid to work here!"

Me: When you were growing up in Montana, did you ever think that you would someday be working for NASA, or was that a childhood goal?

Jaime: In our science class in seventh grade, we learned about NASA's Viking spacecraft landing on Mars, and I was especially attracted to Viking because it landed the year I was born. I looked at my teacher and said, "I'm going to build stuff that will go to Mars!" The stars aligned, and I got to go to JPL at a time when there were Mars missions all the time. And I got to work on two of the most famous Mars landings of all time and soon to be a third. It's been a great career.

Me: How did you get to JPL?

Jaime: I was working at Perkins Family Restaurant during school at MSU in Bozeman, Montana. A couple would come in and eat everyday at 4 p.m., and one day the lady pulled me aside and said, "What are you doing with your life? I don't want you to be a waitress forever." And I said, "I go to school at MSU. I'm a mechanical engineer student, and my dream is to go work at JPL in California." The lady said, "My brother just retired from there. I'll bring him in." Two weeks later, her brother came in to Perkins and took my resume. Then, a week later, the famous Don Bickler [who leads the Advanced Mechanical Systems team for JPL] called. Don brought me in to JPL, where the stars aligned again, and gave me an internship in the group that was designing mobility systems to go to Mars. It was everything I had ever wanted.You learn to be really sharp when you work for Don. He's the father and inventor of Martian mobility.

Me: With all the pressure and stress of flight missions and landing on Mars, how do you leave the office and go home to a family and sleep?

Jaime: When you are on a flight project, everybody is 100 percent committed, and you know that even if your system is having bugs or not working today, other people are pulling it up by its bootstraps and helping to fix the problem. It's an incredible team that works at JPL, and you will never find, I don't think, in one spot, so many talented people in one place.

Me: Tell me about the bogie joint on Curiosity that you worked on and helped design for the rover. Is that new to suspension or mobility systems on rovers?

Jaime: No, it's not new; it's a take off of old train technology. It balances the weight between the two wheels. Sojourner had it, Spirit and Opportunity had it, and now Curiosity has it. When I started working on Curiosity, JPL asked me to run the mobility team, and I said ok, but I want to do hardware too. I was worried about a career trajectory that would take me into management and not be so technical, and I still really wanted to be technical. I'm really proud of the fact that I ran this amazing team of highly creative, talented people who allowed me to be a manager, and build hardware like the bogie joint at the same time, and to fulfill a lifelong dream of building hardware to go to Mars. [I look over at my father backstage who just retired from 46.5 years on the railroad, and Jaime says to him, "Bill, I bet there was a bogie joint on the train!" He grins from ear to ear and says, "Yep!"]

Me: Tell me about this? [I show Jaime a picture that I took at JPL last summer of a huge pink steel platform that was used as a test bed to work on the mobility system for the rover.]

Andrew Crawford laughing with Jaime Waydo
I interview Jaime Waydo, the mobility team lead mechanical systems engineer for NASA's next Mars rover, Curiosity, during the Montana Space Grant Consortium Research Symposium. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jaime: [laughing] that's called the "Pink Pig." It's a piece of support equipment for the rover mobility system. I decided that we needed a little bit of "girl" in the mobility team. I was the only girl on the mobility team for a long time, and if I could do anything to make girls more excited about science and engineering, then I was going to do it. I figured that if girls saw this huge pink piece of equipment, and realized that a girl had been there and done that and worked on the rover, it would make girls excited. And it did. Engineering school is really hard: the all night studying, the thermodynamics. The fact that I made it through engineering school still blows my mind. It was tunnel vision focus to get to JPL to be on that spacecraft team. If I can do it, then I want to inspire other girls to go for it as well.

Andrew Crawford laughing with Jaime Waydo
Jaime had the idea to paint this piece of support equipment for the Curiosity rover bright pink to show girls that engineering can be fun. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Not only does Jaime continue to inspire girls and boys alike, she inspires countless students and future engineers. She has a way of making you feel like you have the right stuff and should continue to shoot for the stars. The next time I see Jaime will be at JPL on August 5, when Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars. On that night, when I look toward Mars in the sky, I'll know that Jaime was a part of paving the way for space exploration, my greatest passion.

TAGS: Jaime Waydo, Mars, Rover, Robotics

  • Andrew Crawford

Students compete at a FIRST robotics competition.

Sixty-four high school teams will compete in the 20th season of the Los Angeles regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition. The competition will be held Friday, March 25 and Sat., March 26, at the Long Beach Convention Center.

This year's "Logo Motion" game consists of two competing teams, with three robots each, on a flat, 8.2-by-16.5 meter (27-by-54-foot) field. The teams earn points by hanging as many plastic shapes (triangles, circles and squares), on their scoring grid, in a two-minute-and-15-second match. The higher the teams hang their game pieces on their scoring grid, the more points their teams receive. The robots can also deploy mini-bots to climb vertical poles for a chance to earn additional points.

Students have six weeks to design, build, program and test their robots to meet the season’s engineering challenge. These young inventors create a robot – with the help of engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., aerospace and other companies and higher-education institutions. They participate in competitions that measure the effectiveness of each robot, the power of collaboration and the determination of students. JPL is sponsoring 11 robotics teams.

These students are among the 51,000 students in more than 2,000 teams from around the world vying to compete in the FIRST championships April 27 to 30 in St. Louis, Mo. The FIRST Robotics competition is part of NASA's Robotics Alliance Project, which aims to expand the number of robotics systems experts available to NASA.

More information and a short video about FIRST is at:

TAGS: FIRST Robotics, Team Competitions, Robotics, High School

  • NASA/JPL Edu

Curiosity in the clean room at JPL

During a live web chat on January 27, 2011, NASA/JPL engineer Nagin Cox answers questions from students about Mars exploration and rovers.

Watch archived broadcast

TAGS: Broadcast, Curiosity, Rovers, Robotics, Mars

  • NASA/JPL Edu