What does it take to plan a rover mission to Mars? Thirty-nine students from community colleges around the country visited NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for a three-day "boot camp" to plan, design and build a working model for a robotic journey to the Red Planet.
The students participated in NASA's National Community
College and Aerospace Scholars (NCAS), a program for students interested
in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Now in its second
year, the program is managed by NASA's Johnson Space Center and
provides hands-on projects that feature possible careers in engineering.
"This program helps fill a gap in the education pipeline," explained NCAS Program Manager Deborah Hutchings. "We have a program that allows community college students to get a taste of a real NASA mission, from planning a budget, to making line drawings and even testing their designs. It takes them through a compressed mission development cycle." On the final day, teams make presentations and compete to see which rovers can maneuver over a simulated terrain.
One alum from last year attests to the program's impact. "I feel like this has put me on the road to working at NASA," said Cliff McKenzie, a mechanical engineering student who attended Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., when he was in the program. He is now an intern at JPL with the NASA Undergraduate Student Researchers Program. "I think students are surprised by the kind of people who work here. Scientists and engineers are sociable and friendly, not locked in their offices just crunching numbers."