This year's ALVA students at JPL.

Students visit the Deep Space Network at Goldstone, Calif.

ALVA students Edgar Flores and Carolina Smith, with teacher Tracie Merrill.

Thanks to a partnership between NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Washington College of Engineering, eight soon-to-be college freshmen are spending their summer working on science and engineering projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Called the Alliance for Learning and Vision for Underrepresented Americans, or ALVA, the nine-week program also gives students daily calculus workshops and the opportunity to spend weekends visiting space-related landmarks like the Palomar Observatory near San Diego, and the 70-meter antenna at Goldstone, one of the three complexes of the Deep Space Network.

"This program serves as a bridge between high school and college," said Wendie Donahue, JPL's university liaison. "It gives the students a better taste of real life and work experience prior to college. It's good in that they are also able to see that work is really work -- it's not as glorious as expected."

The program started nine years ago and it's geared toward underrepresented minorities in science, math, engineering and technology. The students are selected by the University of Washington and, once at JPL, are matched to projects and programs according to their interests.

When A Dream Comes True

The 2003 class of students at JPL is fully aware of the unique opportunity they are living.

"We are very fortunate to be here, to get this kind of experience," says Carolina Smith, one of the program participants. "It's an awesome experience. It's my dream coming true."

Smith is working on the Genesis mission. The Genesis spacecraft, launched two years ago, is collecting particles of the solar wind and will return them to Earth in 2004. Her duties range from assisting in the development of public outreach material to working with the mission operations team. Her contributions are welcomed by everybody on the project, all the way to the top.

"We enjoy having Carolina with the Genesis team this summer," says Don Sweetnam, Genesis project manager. "She is an intensely curious individual. It is great to see someone with so much enthusiasm and passion learning to understand our particular mission and the exploration of our solar system."

Learning By Being Challenged

Another participant, Edgar Flores, has been working with JPL research scientist Bill Smythe, who is extremely impressed by the budding engineer.

"Edgar brings excellent talent for working with computers, mechanical devices, and electronics," Smythe says. "His skills, outstanding self-motivation and high intelligence have made it possible to accomplish much with little explanation."

The challenge was exactly what Flores needed.

"When I started working at JPL I was scared and confused. I didn't know what I was doing," Flores says. "In high school I really wasn't used to being challenged but here I was asked to do things without much instruction at all. That helped me to motivate myself, forced me to think of new ways to do things. I needed this, and this experience is going to be really helpful in my field, chemical engineering."

From ALVA to JPL

As an added bonus, extra support comes from former ALVA students-turned-JPL employees, who are active in helping those in the program now. Some tutor the students with math homework, others drive them to sites on the weekends.

Conan Viernes, a network and computer systems engineer with JPL's Network Technology Development group, was a member of the first group to come to JPL in 1996. He credits the program for jump-starting his career. As an ALVA student he worked with the Cassini ground support team.

"My experience with ALVA was extremely positive," he says. "I did a lot that summer and I learned a lot at JPL, but I think the most important thing ALVA did for me was to create an environment where I could meet people who felt the same way about science and math as I did. I loved the stuff, and so did my co-workers and fellow ALVA students."

"Previously, I had only worked in the fields picking vegetables on the Indian reservation, so I was thrilled when I was chosen for the program."

At the end of the nine-week program, the students are required to do a 15-minute presentation about their experiences at JPL. When asked about their summer vacation, these students' answers will truly be out of this world.

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Written by Enrico Piazza