With plans to become a mechanical engineer and a veterinarian, two Columbia Basin College students had no intention of going into space.
But that didn’t stop them from participating in a program to develop potential missions to Mars, which earned them invitations to work with NASA engineers this month.
Lesly Ibarra and Crystal Poorman are two of 40 community college students selected nationally to participate in the final portion of the National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
While not directly related to their career paths, both see the program as an opportunity to expand their horizons and understanding of science-related fields.
“It’ll just make me more diverse,” Poorman said.
The third-year students, who are finishing up prerequisite courses before heading to four-year universities, have been tutors in the Math Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA, program at CBC, which encourages women and minorities to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers.
MESA Director Gabriela Whitemarsh heard about the NASA scholars program this summer and approached MESA students about participating. Three initially signed up for the semester-long program, where student performance would determine who would go to the flight center.
“Opportunities like this don’t come up often,” Whitemarsh recalled telling her students. “Any time you can put real legitimate experience on a résumé that have impacted you, that’s a great thing.”
Ibarra, Poorman and other students in the NASA scholars program spent weeks taking online courses and learning about Mars exploration, including designing of rovers.
The students with the best scores throughout the program were selected to visit the flight center in Alabama, where the students, when not touring the facility and hearing from NASA experts, will break into teams and develop more specific proposals for Mars missions and rover prototypes, down to forming a company with a budget and presentations.
“With this program, NASA continues the agency’s tradition of investing in the nation’s educational programs,” a release said. “It is directly tied to the agency’s major education goal of attracting and retaining in STEM disciplines critical to NASA’s future missions, which include missions to Mars and beyond.”
The program’s coursework wasn’t too difficult for Ibarra, who said she’s always been fascinated by space. Determination and hard work was all that was needed and students who aren’t pursuing careers in science and math could do just as well.
“Something doesn’t have to be intimidating if you don’t make it intimidating,” she said.
Some of the program’s concepts were more foreign to Poorman, who said her career goal is science-oriented but different from what is usually needed for designing space missions. That doesn’t mean her knowledge of chemistry and biology isn’t valuable, as she spent her time in the program looking at potential water sources on Mars for future missions.
“I’m more interested in seeing how everything is related,” she said.
Ibarra’s and Poorman’s success in the NASA scholars program speaks greatly to their abilities and future as STEM professionals, Whitemarsh said. But they’re also an example to other CBC students of how all students can reach high levels so long as they apply their best effort.
“When it’s someone you know and see in the MESA center or is graduating and is going on, it’s very powerful,” Whitemarsh said.