NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) is an educational experience geared towards community college students all over the country who have an interest in the fields of mathematics, science, engineering, or computer science. The goal of this program is to encourage community college students to complete a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year university, and build a diverse future STEM workforce. NCAS is divided into two components: the online experience and the NASA experience.
This component consists of a five-week self-paced online course that happens twice a year during the spring and fall semesters. In this course, students learn about NASA missions and research through multimedia content. Also, there are subject matter expert lectures from NASA professionals each week of the online course. In order to complete the course, students must complete online quizzes based on the content of the course and turn in a final project. In my case, my final project was about “In-situ resource utilization capabilities”, which focused on the technologies available for extracting and utilizing resources in celestial bodies.
Students who successfully completed the online course were invited to attend the NASA experience.
During regular times, the NASA experience used to be a three to four-day onsite experience at a NASA center where students participated in an engineering design workshop. This year, the NASA experience was a 9-day virtual paid experience in which students participated in a mission design project, all while attending several enrichment presentations. This program would culminate in a closing ceremony where each team would present their projects, and the best teams would be awarded.
There were several daily presentations, subject matter expert lectures, and workshops given by NASA professionals. These allowed me to gain insight into NASA, its internship opportunities, missions, and workforce. One of the advantages of the virtual modality is that we were able to interact with professionals at different NASA centers all across the country. I enjoyed attending the NASA speakers’ presentations and learning about their backgrounds and the obstacles they faced to get where they are today.
Margaret Dominguez's presentation was the highlight of all the presentations I attended to. As someone who also grew up in Mexico and moved to the U.S. to pursue higher education, I saw myself reflected in the particular challenges that she experienced.
The design project:
During these two weeks, my team had to design a space mission and give a final presentation on our project. We were responsible for designing a launchable mission that was decided to go to the Moon. Our mission was required to stay under budget, meet scientific goals, and satisfy engineering constraints. During the mission building process, we had to research and purchase power supply rockets, mechanical systems, computer systems, science instruments, communications systems, mobility, and entry, descent, and landing gear. The dynamics of the project assimilated a game of monopoly. All of our mission components were purchased as game cards with specifics on what they contribute to the mission. In addition, our budget was given to us as money cards that were obtained by attending virtual presentations and completing bonus activities for extra money.
My crew was formed by community college students from all around the country. Each member had assigned crew roles for the success of the mission. For my crew, I participated as one of the materials engineers by researching material options and power supply for the mission. I also participated as one of the science return specialists that ensured that the scientific goals of the mission were being met. And finally, I participated as the human resource officer who was in charge of ensuring cooperative team dynamics and keeping the crew on task. As a crew, we were assigned a NASA mentor who was in charge of guiding us through the process. Our crew mentor was crucial for us to complete our project and overall get through the two weeks of this virtual experience.
As for our outcomes, unfortunately, my team did not win the crew competition. However, during the closing ceremony, the mentor of each team gave a Most Valued Participant (MVP) award to, as the name indicates, the team member that participated the most and was a valuable component of the team dynamics. I was surprised to learn that I won as the MVP of my team. I definitely saw an improvement in my confidence, communication, leadership, organization, and time management skills during these two weeks. And I am grateful that my mentor saw the potential in me. As for the prize, I received a flag that had been flown aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
I must admit that I was nervous to begin this virtual experience, but as days went by, I realized that I was not alone. I had a network of crewmates, my mentor, and the NCAS staff that were in the same boat with me. I had a wonderful experience during NCAS, and I hope that my story inspires others to apply and be part of this program.
Information and application links: