A Girl Scout Takes Flight
When 17-year-old Frenchcesca is in the cockpit of an airplane, she is in a world of her own.
"I can be in my own little bubble and do something that's so amazing, like fly," she said, sharing her feelings about flying.
The California teenager became excited about flying after participating in a special NASA project called Launch into Technology. The summer residential program at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., teaches teenage girls about science and technology.
Girls select a science topic supported by the Aeronautics Institute, Robotics Institute or Astrobiology Institute. For one week during the summer, they meet and work with NASA scientists.
Frenchcesca chose aeronautics. "I did get a little scared because I thought maybe the other girls there would know a lot more than me and I wouldn't fit in. But when I got there, I found out that the girls were just like me, and we were all there to learn together," she said.
She and the other girls learned how airplanes are designed and what makes them fly. They visited an air traffic control tower where they observed planes landing, taxiing and taking off. They learned how air traffic controllers direct aircraft on the ground and in the air.
The girls toured Moffett Field airfield, saw a variety of aircraft, and talked to NASA engineers and pilots about their careers. The teenagers learned how the shape and style of an airplane's wing can affect flight and made paper airplanes with different wing designs. Participants helped conduct tests at a NASA wind tunnel testing facility, where scientists and engineers were testing aircraft designs. In a wind tunnel, air moves around an object, making it seem like the object is flying.
The following summer, Frenchcesca was awarded a scholarship to attend the Aviation Challenge program at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"That's where I got hooked," she said. "That's where I learned to really like it. I've flown in planes, but I've never been behind doing the flying. ... I thought flying was just you get behind the wheel, kind of like driving. ... When I was in Huntsville (flying the flight simulators) it felt like I was in control, and anything I did wrong could mess me up, and everything I did right was good."
These experiences sparked Frenchcesca's interest in science and computers. She has since taken college-level biology and physics courses with the goal to pursue a college degree in physics. She wants to be a doctor. But first she wants to go to a nearby junior college and earn her aviation certificate and pilot's license. She hopes to begin flying before she even graduates from high school!
Frenchcesca attended Launch into Technology again in 2008. This time, she was part of the project's Astrobiology Institute, studying microorganisms to learn more about the origins of life. She and other participants studied the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe, as well as conducted microbial experiments to determine what kind of environments life can tolerate.
"This program really opened up our eyes to all the smaller things in the world that we can't see with our eyes," she said. The study of microbes is relevant to the search for water and the components needed for life on other planets.
"It was amazing," Frenchcesca said. "On one small piece of dirt, the size of a pen tip, there can be a million things on there. I knew there were things like that out there, but I didn't know there could be so many."
Launch into Technology is part of a larger partnership between NASA and the Girls Scouts of the USA, aimed at motivating and encouraging girls to do their best. The partnership supports Girl Scouts' Girls Go Tech national initiative to encourage girls to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. The partnership also supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in STEM disciplines.
Jean Fahy, Girls Go Tech program director for the Girl Scouts of Northern California, said the NASA partnership gives Girl Scouts the opportunity to learn more about careers in science and technology by doing hands-on activities, meeting role models, and going out to sites and facilities.
"We are so lucky to have a NASA site so nearby," Fahy said, "and they (the girls) feel that it's great to be able to be working with people in the field -- scientists and engineers that are able to show them projects which they're actually working on."
Girls are introduced to a variety of careers, some they may never have heard of or considered, Fahy added. According to Frenchcesca, her NASA experiences "really opened my eyes to a lot of things I didn't know I could do before, but now I know I can."
Many girls who participated in Launch into Technology have gone on to other NASA student opportunities, including the INSPIRE internship project for high school students, the NASA Robotics Academy and the NASA Robotics Alliance Project. Last summer, five girls involved in the NASA/Girl Scout partnership spent the summer at Ames: two had INSPIRE internships; one was in the NASA Robotics Academy; one had an internship in the Robotics Exploration Lab (part of the Robotics Alliance Project); and one built a functional wind tunnel for her Girl Scout Gold Award. NASA recognizes Girl Scouts who have earned a Gold Award with a congratulatory letter and certificate from the NASA administrator.
Several girls from the Launch into Technology Robotics Institute have gone on to compete in the FIRST Robotics competition with either their high school robotics team or with the NASA/Girl Scout team, the Space Cookies. The Space Cookies recently finished second in the Silicon Valley Regional Competition. The team also won the Engineering Inspiration Award and the opportunity to compete in the FIRST Robotics World Championship event in Atlanta.
Ames education programs specialist Wendy Holforty worked with Fahy to start Launch into Technology. She also has worked and continues to work closely with the Girl Scouts. "What I think is most dramatic about the partnership is we get the opportunity to see kids come in with sort of an interest, and all of the sudden determine, 'I'm not only interested, I'm actually capable of doing the work.'
"It's really kind of heart-warming to see these kids make that revelation."
Frenchcesca has become a sort of ambassador for the Girl Scouts of the USA and NASA. She is active with her troop's Girls Go Tech planning committee and encourages others in her community to participate. "Girl Scouts has made a huge difference in my life. ... That week (at NASA), every other day there were shootings in my city, so it was really hard and this really helped to get me away from that. It's opened my eyes because there are so many things I can't do around here because of where I live.
"It's been an amazing opportunity, and I'm just so grateful for it."
NASA's Ames Research Center
NASA FIRST Robotics
NASA Robotics Academy
NASA Girl Scout Gold Award Recognition
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Girl Scouts of Northern California →
Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services