As a Physics major, peer tutor, and student lab assistant, I’ve had the opportunity to spend an inordinate amount of time on campus with my fellow STEM students over the last two semesters, and there’s something that has continued to bother me. For whatever reason, many STEM students seem to act like they view their time at DMACC as an inconvenience rather than an asset. Whether they’re here because they wanted to save on tuition, or they’re here because they’re on academic probation and have no other choice, the attitude seems to be the same. Their focus is on their future at the university, rather than appreciating the present. The problem with this mindset however, is that I think it’s causing students to miss out on unique opportunities available to them now, specifically because they attend a community college instead of a university. The greatest example of this is NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program, of which only three DMACC students took advantage of this past Winter.
Open to currently enrolled community college students with at least nine semester hours of STEM coursework, and who are U.S. citizens, the admission process is competitive, but straightforward. The application simply consists of an unofficial transcript copy, an instructor recommendation and evaluation, and a short essay on why the applicant is interested in participating in a NASA experience.
Once accepted, the NCAS program begins with a five-week, non-credit, online course focused on NASA’s progression towards eventually sending a manned mission to Mars. This course is sort of blend between a science and a history class. It begins with covering the history of NASA’s Martian research endeavors, and then moves into the major concerns of trying to send a human to Mars. From there, the course covers how research conducted by NASA in space has an impact on our understanding of terrestrial subjects. After that, it goes over some of the basic concepts of Astronomy, and Aeronautics. A huge amount of material is covered in these weeks, but don’t let that discourage you from applying.
The course is divided into three modules, each including two activities that break up the material into easily digestible chunks. Each activity includes a number of readings and videos, and ends with a short, multiple-choice quiz. While an interest in the technical aspects of NASA is necessary, a strong basis in any one subject is not. There are no math, physics, chemistry, or other traditional scientific problems. Instead, the quizzes simply require that the student recall key points covered in that activity’s material. Sporadically throughout the course there are also live video-presentations by NASA experts covering a number of relevant topic. The only real assignment, aside from the quizzes, is a single research project at the culmination of the course. This assignment is designed to allow the student to demonstrate some of the things they’ve learned throughout the program by completing one of several project options. Options include: designing a Martian rover, planning a robotic rover Mars mission, and writing an essay evaluating NASA’s Evolvable Mars Campaign.
I’m sure the idea of volunteering to do all of this additional work on top of whatever normal coursework one already has might seem crazy, but I assure you, it’s not that bad. Don’t get me wrong, it can be daunting at times, but every NCAS alumnus I’ve spoken to has agreed that it was worth the effort. This is because at the very end of the course, the top performing
students are invited to attend one of several four-day, on-site workshops at one of the NASA sites spread across the country.
This past February, DMACC students attended workshops at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, and Stennis Space Center (SSC) in Mississippi. These workshops have two main purposes. The first is a team competition that is based on developing a theoretical company and rover that you eventually pitch to the NASA experts. The second objective is to introduce NCAS students to NASA operations and opportunities. Attendees are able to tour some of the facilities at that NASA location. This most recent session at JSC included touring the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) where astronauts train for spacewalking (EVA) missions in a 6.2 million gallon pool. At Stennis, our group was able to witness the highest powered test firing of the RS-25 engine to date, explore one of the rocket engine test stands, and tour the Aerojet Rocketdyne engine assembly facility. These workshops are an intense four-days, and truly are unforgettable. Making this even sweeter is that all expenses are paid by NASA, so you too can experience the joys of getting felt-up by the TSA at zero cost to you.
If it isn’t abundantly clear by now, I think very highly of the NCAS program, and every semester I hate to see how few STEM students actually take advantage of it. I get that STEM students might be more excited about their four-year program than what they’re doing at DMACC, but my advice is very simple. If you happen to be a STEM student, don’t let your excitement about what’s to come make you miss things that are available to you right now. Even you’re not interested in working for NASA, there are still thing amazing things to you available here at DMACC, you just have to look.
The application period for the next NCAS session is now open, and will close June 4th.
Hons. Program Exec. Officer, Ambassador 2017-18
Ankeny & Boone Campuses