Last week, 40 community college students landed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to accept the challenge of building miniature Mars rovers over the course of four days, from July 9-12, putting their designs to the test in a series of competitions on simulated Martian terrain.
The challenge is part of the National Community College Aerospace Scholar, or NCAS, program, which hosts hundreds of students across multiple NASA centers for a twice-yearly educational workshop and engineering competition. The activity provides students with an up-close and intimate look at NASA missions, and an opportunity to present their work to a panel of judges.
One key part of their week here: The students, who are divided into four teams, are mentored by NASA scientists and engineers. And at JPL – where the competition is organized by the Education Office – nobody knows the mentorship experience better than Amiee Quon and Otto Polanco, JPL's two longest-serving NCAS mentors.
In 2012, Quon – who participated in the high school version of NCAS when she was 16 – saw an email circulated at JPL requesting mentors for the competition. She signed up and has been a mentor ever since.
“It’s so rewarding to see how excited they are about engineering, and when they work hard on something and collaborate, that things work out for them,” says Quon, a mechanical integration engineer who has worked on the Mars 2020 helicopter and the Juno mission orbiting Jupiter, and is currently working on the Europa Clipper mission.
Things worked out especially well for Quon's mentees this session: The 10 students on her team were named the winners of the summer 2019 competition.
“My team was very cohesive, and I was impressed by how well they worked together to design, build and operate their successful rover,” she says. “All the teams did a great job on the toughest competition course I’ve ever seen.”
For Polanco, being a mentor is a capstone on his own experience as a community college student. He started his undergraduate studies at Santa Monica College, transferred to Cal State L.A. to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and eventually landed an internship at JPL. He's been at JPL for 15 years and has worked as an optical-mechanical engineer on the Mars Science Laboratory mission, Starshade project and more.
The NCAS competition is an opportunity for Polanco to encourage students to go after what they want to do – including helping one female college freshman, whose family expected her to marry and have children instead of chasing a STEM career. Polanco guided her during an NCAS competition and stayed in touch throughout her college years; today, she’s pursuing a Ph.D. at Caltech and studying global climate change.
“The most rewarding part is influencing people’s perspectives about what their engineering futures might be,” he says. “It’s about convincing them to pursue their dreams and passions and seeing them grow over the years.”
While Quon and Polanco play a big part in helping guide the students through various Mars rover challenges and their final presentations, they both recognize that their ultimate roles lie in reminding students that they deserve to achieve anything they set their minds to.
“A lot of our mentorship is raising the confidence levels of individuals,” Polanco says. “It’s through these side conversations that you often hear, ‘I’m not qualified or worthy enough to work here.’” And I always ask them, ‘Why do you put a ceiling on yourself?’”
Adds Quon: “We talked to somebody during the competition who felt they would be at a disadvantage going to career fairs because they transferred [into their current university]. But you’ve worked hard to get to where you are. There’s absolutely no reason to feel 'less than.'”
To that end, Polanco encourages more people at JPL to mentor when they can.
“I think it’s a really good experience for JPL employees to go through, to see how their own experience can help others,” he says. “My little path is a good example of what people can do. There are so many students in community college who struggle to see that end achievement. But the institution is good about hiring talent and [individuals with] strong work ethic, no matter where you went to school.”
The NCAS program is funded by the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program. Learn more and apply, here.