A girl who planned to be a baker, now wants to be a nuclear engineer.
A boy who wanted to go straight to working after getting a high school diploma, now has a passion for physics.
A student brought to the U.S. as a kindergartner, now aspires to be a lawyer.
They are commonplace stories at Columbia Basin College’s High School Academy, which takes students ages 16-20 who either dropped out or nearly quit high school, and gives them a second chance to get a diploma.
Now they’re working on passions for engineering, physics and telemetry.
The academy’s Mars Rover Challenge team has helped author many of those success stories, and the team is gearing up for its main event of the year.
Eleven students will travel next month to the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge in Alabama, where they will compete with hundreds of other teams from around the world.
In the end, they will try to pilot their self-made buggy across a Mars-like course.
“We kind of refer to ourselves as the square pegs that don’t fit in the round holes, and we wear that with pride,” said Jerry Hombel, mentor for the school’s Mars Rover team since its inception four years ago. “But these guys are all geniuses. They’re amazing. It’s just getting them to believe in that.”
We kind of refer to ourselves as the square pegs that don’t fit in the round holes, and we wear that with pride. But these guys are all geniuses. They’re amazing. It’s just getting them to believe in that.
Jerry Hombel, mentor Mars Rover Challenge
It’s the fourth year the academy has fielded a team — the only of its kind in the Pacific Northwest — and it’s been fairly successful so far, placing in the top third of the 90 or more high schools competing each year.
While designing, creating and testing spacecraft educates and challenges the students, collaborating with a team of peers may be just as valuable.
“They’re building their confidence and cheering each other on,” said Amy Buehler, one of the academy’s two primary teachers. “Just in a few short months, these kids have really grown. It’s really rewarding.”
Hombel, the academy’s other teacher who focuses on STEM education, grew up up dreaming about space travel, and at one point worked part-time for NASA. Through the Mars Rover team and teaching at the academy, he’s able to connect kids with disciplines he feels are important that may be lacking at other schools.
“We need more and more people in engineering and sciences and STEM areas,” Hombel said. “I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say the government has kind of dropped the ball. They point fingers and say ‘these guys aren’t good enough,’ just talking about students in general.
“When I was a kid, I had dreams of going to the moon because I saw astronauts going to the moon. And all of a sudden they take those dreams away, there’s your math and sciences. And we need more of those.”
Hombel’s guidance has inspired nine of his current Mars Rover team members to apply for NASA internships and one of them, Allison Mazurek, has already been accepted into the program.
Success comes in all forms for the challenge team — and for all 62 enrolled in the academy.
We need more and more people in engineering and sciences and STEM areas. I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say the government has kind of dropped the ball.
Jerry Hombel, mentor Mars Rover Challenge
Senior Sharon Alfaro, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 5, says she was kicked out of her house by her parents and nearly dropped out of school. Now, she’s helping build a telemetry system for a Mars rover and hopes one day of being a lawyer focused on immigration and human rights.
“I’m learning a lot of things that I never thought I would be capable of,” Alfaro said. “It’s a new opportunity to overcome your fears.”
Through tears, she added: “I hope I can be sort of an inspiration. ... I think 5-year-old me crossing the border would be really proud.”
In Alabama, the challenge team will visit the Marshall Space Flight Center, meet NASA engineers and scientists, socialize with other teams from Germany, Russia and other countries and more.
Hombel estimated 90 high school and 90 college teams will try navigating a nearly mile-long obstacle course in their rovers while gathering samples.
The CBC team hopes to have its four-wheeled, two-person, pedal-powered rover ready for testing by next week, Hombel said. The vehicle — which the team has worked on since October — must be designed, built and tested by the students.
The team expects the trip and rover materials to cost $25,000. For information on how to help them raise the last $15,000, visit ColumbiaBasin.edu/Donate.