NASA program welcomes two Merced College Students in October,

MERCED, Calif. — After she completes a four-day program at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View next month, there will be a NASA mission patch waiting for Angelica Walker.

She and fellow Merced College student Alvin Collier will participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program at the center on October 8-11. The competitive program welcomes community college students seeking careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Walker and Collier are not NASA engineers. Neither has been to the moon or the International Space Station (ISS). Still, both will get the full NASA experience. It will stretch their STEM skills, boost their STEM careers, and earn them a mission patch, one of the coolest wardrobe accessories ever conceived.

WINNING A SHOT

Walker will be in heady company as a new high school graduate. She had to wait to apply for the NCAS program until her 18th birthday (April 14). She found out she earned a spot in May while sitting in class, reading email on the sly, and doing silent screams of joy in her head. Then the work began. Her first task? Complete a five-week online course May 29 through July 3, during her final days at Merced High. She designed a Mars rover for her NCAS project. It had to work for astronauts wearing spacesuits like those used for spacewalks on the ISS. Walker accepted the challenge when she realized the ISS suits work great walking around in zero gravity, but not so great when folding oneself into a vehicle.

OPENING DOORS

The projects are NASA-inspired since the NCAS goal is to find new brains, a diverse pool of brains, for NASA and STEM careers. NASA launched the program in 2007 in partnership with its Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). Community college hasn’t been a traditional door into NASA, but the NCAS seeks to change that. The effort began small at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in 2007. Now the entire agency participates, awarding NCAS spots at all of its centers to roughly 800 U.S. community college students annually. At the end of each cycle, scholars compete for NASA internships. With Walker and Collier, seven MC students have earned spots in the six years since Kathleen Kanemoto, who leads the computer science program at MC, began pushing students to apply.

Yes, pushing.

“A lot of times, students lack self-confidence,” Kanemoto says. “They don’t feel they can do it.”

Kanemoto builds confidence with project-based learning. She starts small with hands-on tasks, like the ones building up to Walker’s five-week rover design project, and increase in intensity and complexity, like whatever Walker will tackle over four days with a team in October.

“Not many community college students study computer science in high school,” Kanemoto said. “They don’t realize they can do it. Once they complete some tasks, they know they can do it.”

CAREERS PREPARATION

Walker has that confidence now. Teachers noticed her talent years ago. She first heard of the NCAS program from Joe Gaestel, her computer science teacher at Merced High, as a sophomore. Gaestel, who retired this summer, had been in cahoots with Kanemoto for years, both searching for promising STEM students, especially girls and minorities.

“We have AP computer science students who are on the fence, thinking, ‘Can I really do this?” Gaestel says. “I kept throwing out the [NCAS] idea to the girls. Angelica was the only one who followed through.” Both educators know the NCAS program suits Walker and Collier, who want to use science to help people. NASA people become NASA people because they feel the same.

SCIENTISTS AT HEART

Experts say 65 percent of jobs next-generation workers will hold don’t exist right now. The need for people who can think across disciplines is immense and growing. Walker is that generation. “I’ve always felt like a scientist in my heart,” she says. “I want to do something [like cybersecurity] where I know I’m helping people.” Walker grew up reading comic books about other altruistic people—superheroes like Batman. “He had no superpower,” Walker says. “It was his brain and the studying he did that made him a superhero.” She knows she can fight for good, like the Dark Knight, with science. “I hope my experience inspires others to pursue what they want to do in life,” Walker says. “Just take every opportunity.”