NASA Sees group
High schoolers from across the nation participated in a STEM summer outreach program hosted by UT Austin's Center for Space Research.

Through an internship program at UT Austin’s Center for Space Research (CSR) this summer, high schoolers from across the nation had the opportunity to map flood evacuation routes, track asteroids, reduce real satellite data, and design a mission to image the Earth from the moon. Students who participated left the program knowing a lot more about the possibilities of careers in STEM, and the program solidified their interest in science, technology, engineering and math – an important accomplishment at a time when reports say high schoolers are losing interest.

“I would definitely recommend anyone work in STEM because there are so many branches in what you can do,” said Skylar Radka, one of the participants. “This program helped me narrow down my decision, what I want to do in the future. It’s life-changing.”

A group of 30 high schoolers from across the country worked on NASA research through the Student Enhancement in Earth and Space Science (SEES) summer internship program, which is based on an earlier smaller-scale local program funded by the NASA Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) program.

Co-managed by Professor Wallace Fowler of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics and Margaret Baguio, education and outreach coordinator for the Texas Space Grant Consortium, SEES involves students working with professionals in teams on real-world science and engineering tasks.

The program is completely paid for through the NASA grant, including transportation and housing costs. According to Fowler, this allows the program to encourage students, regardless of their personal background, to participate.

“You light the fire,” Fowler said. “You turn them on. Even if they’re turned on already, you stoke the fire, and all of a sudden, they’re an ambassador for what you’re doing.”

Several projects were funded from this NASA grant opportunity, but according to Baguio, the UT program is one of the few that works directly with students, and the only program that allows students the opportunity to do authentic research with NASA data.

Many of the student participants said that the program had encouraged them to continue pursuing STEM fields, and some have even decided to apply to UT Austin’s aerospace engineering program.

“We had one young man who just wrote to his SEES science mentor saying that he’s getting ready to prepare his college essays, and one of the questions they ask is ‘Who is your role model?’” Baguio said. “Before that, it would have been his parents, and now he thinks it’s his science mentor.”

In addition to their research projects, the students were exposed to an authentic college experience by living in UT campus dorms and participating in the recreational sports program. They also participated in additional educational activities, such as watching the Austin bats with an environmentalist, designing a Mission to Mars through an activity called Mars Bound and taking a day trip to the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Although the outreach program was expanded, it is still highly competitive. This year, six hundred students applied to the program and only five percent were accepted. As the window for applying is longer for next summer, Baguio and Fowler expect the program to be even more selective. Next year, they hope to expand the number of students accepted into the program.

“Historically, I have seen a huge number of the students who have participated go into engineering careers here at UT,” Baguio said. “I definitely think hosting them here and having them on campus really did provide an awareness and understanding of what degree plans are available.”