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: https://ncas.aerospacescholars.org/
I grew up moving around in the U.S. and Mexico, which made it hard to
keep up with school. I mainly struggled with my language arts classes,
but there were areas in which I excelled: math and science. I was in
high school when I decided I wanted to be a scientist; I was fascinated
by the explanations of the world through chemistry and physics. Although
I was living in Mexico at that time, I never gave up on the dream of
attending an American university to pursue my education. In 2010, my
family and I moved to California.
I was already a high school senior in my last semester when I enrolled in school. I had already missed all the university deadlines, hadn't taken the SATs and had to attend adult school in the afternoon to make up for missing credits. Despite all of that, I graduated on time and decided to attend the College of the Sequoias, a local community college, where I am now majoring in chemistry. (I will be transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall!)
During my freshman year, I heard about the NASA National Community
College Aerospace Scholars Program, and I decided to give it a shot. I
used my basic knowledge of chemistry to write a series of proposals for a
mission to Mars that included a timeline, budget and rover design.
Based on my individual performance, I was selected on a competitive
basis to attend the on-site team project at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. There were about 40 students from all over the U.S. We were
split into four teams to put our ideas together and build a rover. We
called our team "Red Planet Research" and our rover was named "Isis."
(It was my birthday!) Through this I experience, I saw what it takes to
be a NASA scientist and engineer. I also discovered that I wanted to
become one of the JPL scientists who are involved with exploration
missions. I was hooked on studying the Earth and planets. I returned to
my school excited for what was to come and shared my excitement with
others. I am happy to say that four students from my community college
participated in NCAS this year at JPL.
In August of 2013, I received an email from NASA Education saying that I had been selected to receive the Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholarship! The program guarantees two summer internships at any NASA center. Right away, I knew I wanted to come back to JPL. Although I come from a small community college, I managed to be a competitive applicant due to my involvement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, such as the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.
This summer, for the first of my two NASA internships as a MUREP scholar, I am working in the AstroBiogeoChemistry (ABC) Lab measuring hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in hydrated clay minerals. Our goal is to improve instrument precision and techniques for possible future return-sample missions.
It's a dream come true to finally work in a planetary chemistry and astrobiology lab. I have the opportunity to meet researchers who are passionate about their work and be involved in exciting research. But I think the best part of the internship is my lab group. There are two other interns, two post-doctorate interns, a Ph.D. student, and my mentor. They all take the time to tell us about the work they're doing and, most important, mentor us as rising scientists. Throughout my experience, I have learned a lot about research, and I am inspired to continue in the STEM field. I was nervous before coming to JPL and didn't know what to expect, but being part of the ABC Lab has exceeded all my expectations. I encourage all community college students to apply for NASA opportunities.
Although my internship is coming to an end, I am happy to say that I will be back next summer to do more exciting research.
Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships
If you're reading this, there's a good chance that you or someone you know has been in a science fair. Chances are that your project did not lead directly to a collaboration with a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and a paper in the professional journal Environmental Research Letters. Alice Zhai's project did.
The 16-year-old Zhai, who will be a senior this fall at La Cañada High School near JPL in southern California, and JPL research scientist Jonathan Jiang built on Zhai's science fair project, a statistical model of economic losses from hurricanes. They found that the common practice of using only wind speed to represent hurricanes in economic hurricane damage models is inadequate for large storms, such as 2012's Hurricane Sandy. Zhai and Jiang are the first to quantify the economic impacts of increasing hurricane size.
Hurricanes by the numbers
Analyzing 73 hurricanes from 1988 to the present, Zhai and Jiang found that a doubling in size, without a change in wind speed, more than quadruples the economic loss a hurricane causes. Tripling its size multiplies the loss by almost 20 times.
These numbers may be startling, but the idea that storm size matters is not. Experience has proven that not only size but the height of the storm surge, total rainfall and other characteristics affect a storm's impacts. So why do models include only wind speed? In the United States, we still classify hurricanes solely by their speed, using the Saffir-Simpson scale. The scale was devised before satellite observations made it possible to view a storm's size.
By comparison, there is no standardized scale of hurricane size.
Different databases use different benchmarks -- for example, the
distance from the storm's center to the location where the wind speed is
either 34 or 64 nautical miles per hour, or knots. As part of their
study, Zhai and Jiang recalibrated all storms to the 34-knot reference
From the science fair to the real world
Hurricane Sandy was the trigger for Zhai's 2013 project in the Los Angeles County Science Fair. "After seeing the devastation on TV and in the news, I was really curious," Zhai said. "I heard that it was an extremely destructive hurricane, and I noticed that it had a relatively low wind speed but an abnormally large size." Her project won third place in the Earth science division and an "outstanding achievement" award from the American Meteorological Society Los Angeles chapter.
Jiang met Zhai because he was judging other projects at the fair and stopped to see her poster. Her exceptional engagement and inquiring mind impressed him. As a long-time science fair judge, "I've met many high school students," he said. "Some people only have a high GPA because their parents put pressure on them, but Alice is genuinely interested. I put a lot of weight on people having curiosity."
Under Jiang's direction, Zhai kept working on her model to create publishable results, more than doubling the number of storms in the study and doing a more rigorous statistical analysis. The first time the authors submitted the paper, it was turned down. Some teenagers would have been crushed, but not Zhai. "Being rejected wasn't too terrible, because the reviewers' comments were encouraging," she said. "It motivated me to keep going with the project." They modified the paper and resubmitted it to the journal successfully.
Jiang encouraged Zhai to apply for an internship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena and then convinced her adviser there, Yuk Yung, to allow Zhai to expand her hurricane work at JPL this summer. She is improving their hurricane loss model by adding factors such as storm duration and regional economic wealth and using more accurate data on hurricane size based on measurements from NASA's QuikScat satellite.
Zhai is the youngest person by far in Jiang's group, but she's treated no differently than the postdoctoral fellows. "Sometimes I'm very picky, but Alice has never complained," Jiang said. In fact, she appears to be thriving. "I didn't know that my work could actually be applied to a big, real-world problem," she said. "That's kind of unbelievable. Working in a professional setting opened my mind about science. Before this experience, I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but now I want to pursue a math and science career."
The paper is available online at: http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/6/064019/
Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
Not many interns get the opportunity to study one of humanity's biggest questions: How did life emerge? But mechanical engineering major Jessica Nuñez is having the experience of a lifetime in search of the answer. Nuñez is interning this summer in the Planetary Sciences Section at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
As part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute project led by Isik Kanik, Nuñez constructs and analyzes simulated hydrothermal vents, chimney-like structures that are hypothesized to have been the birthing grounds for the emergence of life. On a daily basis, she examines the chimneys, which she constructs herself through a chemical process, and analyzes them with one of her favorite tools on lab: an electron microscope. "It gets the coolest pictures," she said. "It's awesome to be exposed to technology here at JPL that I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere else." Nuñez observes the chimney's composition to see how its structure changes over periods of time. Along with her cohorts, she is hoping to see a chemical reaction similar to the one that scientists believe produced life on Earth.
Working closely with her mentors, Mike Russell and Laurie Barge, Nuñez is eager to lend a helping hand in research that could answer such an important question. "There are a bunch of different pieces to this big puzzle to see how life could have surfaced," she said.
While Nuñez's ultimate career goal is to work in the engineering field, she is excited about the new challenges and experiences an internship in planetary sciences might offer. "It was kind of intimidating at first, but at the same time I was excited about all the possibilities JPL has and all there is to learn," she said. "I would like to get exposed to as much as possible, so it's exciting for me to get my foot in the door here and see what work I can do in the future."
This fall, the 22-year-old West Covina native is bidding adieu to Citrus Community College in order to sail into new terrains at the University of California, Berkeley. Nuñez believes she will have an edge as she enters a new academic chapter. "In a sense, I think this internship is preparing me to transfer, because I am learning something new every day, so it's nice," she said.
Whether she is taking a run in the neighboring mountains, or investigating the deeply webbed quest of life's emergence, Nuñez is thoroughly enjoying her internship experience. And like many scientists and engineers who venture to JPL, she is already planning for her future endeavors. "I would love to continue working here, maybe even in different areas within JPL or other NASA laboratories," she said.
In the near future, she hopes to participate in developing missions to visit Europa and Enceladus, the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, widely regarded as the next frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.
Says Nuñez, "I've never been into space or exposed to it, but now that I have, I love it."
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.
I was inspired to pursue planetary science through my mother in conjunction with my late father.
Losing my father at age 2, it was obviously difficult for a single mother raising two young girls. One night, in sort of disciplinary action for something I had done, my mother took me out back. Pointing up, she said that the brightest star in the sky was my father looking down on me -- for all the good and the bad that I would do. Since then, I never stopped looking up.
Little did she know that her disciplinary action would cost her later in life as I begged (and received) my first telescope at the age of twelve affirming my love of space.
When I graduated from college in 2005, I decided to go into the game industry and ended up at my dream job as a software engineer at Nintendo outside of Seattle. I loved it there -- I was working for a company that I loved, and the work was rewarding and interesting.
A few years later, I left the company to work on some solo projects in the game industry. It was about this time that I picked up a copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, almost on a whim, as leisure reading for a plane ride. I instantly found myself transfixed by its message, and my jaw literally dropped as I realized that I wanted to do something different with my life: to promote the cause of human exploration of space.
From that point on, I worked toward this goal, even though my experience up to that point had been in video games, and I had no aerospace background whatsoever. I got guidance from a number of mentors in the industry: Neil deGrasse Tyson at the American Museum of Natural History, Piet Hut at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, former astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and Tara Estlin here at JPL, among others.
I returned to Nintendo and kept working as a software engineer, but took night classes to get a masters degree in computer science and studied astronautics, astronomy, and mechanical engineering on the side. Eventually, I enrolled in the University of Washington's Masters of Aeronautics and Astronautics program, and I quit my job to become a full-time student and wholly dedicate myself to space exploration.
When I quit my job, I saved this screenshot from my "exit survey":
When I was 11, I came to JPL for the 2004 Open House, which was only a few months after the landing of Spirit and Opportunity.
My mom took me to a talk led by a woman who was in mission control during the landing of the rovers, and she played a video of the landing. The landing video and her enthusiasm were so inspiring, that I asked the woman during Q&A, "How do I get your job?" I talked with the woman afterward, and she told me to work hard, take every science class I could and to never give up.
In my 11-year-old mind, I somehow understood the importance of space exploration. From then on, I knew I wanted to be part of NASA missions, particularly for Mars, and so far, I think I'm heading in the right direction.
I was in middle school when I first came to JPL. I saw all the wonderful spacecraft models like Voyager and Cassini. I was inspired by these achievements.
But what inspired me the most was seeing the Curiosity Mars Rover being built in the clean room. I knew that one day I want to work at JPL. And interning at JPL is a first step to becoming a full-time employee here. JPL is what has inspired me to become an aerospace engineer.