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Marta Metelko
Headquarters, Washington
(Phone: 202/358-1642)
November 21, 2003
 
RELEASE : 03-378
 
 
NASA Engineer Inspires Next Generation Of Explorers
 
 
In 1967, Americans were waiting breathlessly for an Apollo space flight to take the first human beings to the moon. At the same time, Berta Alfonso was waiting on a "freedom flight" of her own -- one that would take the 6-year-old from Cuba to a whole new world, a whole new life that inspired youth to follow their dreams.

As an education technology project manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Fla., she's come a long way from her hasty flight to freedom. She manages the development of educational tools and resources for students and teachers, including the CD-ROM-based "Virtual Lab" application. This three-dimensional laboratory provides high school and college students with a realistic, hands-on experience of using sophisticated laboratory instruments similar to those used by NASA in science and exploration missions.

"Our goal is to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Alfonso said.

In 1965 Cuban authorities set up an exodus program known as "freedom flight" in order to stop illegal emigration. Cuban families could legally leave, if they had a sponsor in the United States and submitted the appropriate paperwork. The catch, however, was the exit would be orchestrated in a single day, with no advance warning. As a result, families were forced to leave all possessions behind but a handful of clothing.

Alfonso's parents did what many others did in those days: they took their daughter and left their homeland for America. But the Alfonso family was luckier than most, because Berta's mother had an uncle in America who sponsored her family's "freedom flight."

"When we arrived in Miami, each of us got a care package from the Red Cross with a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap," Alfonso vividly recalled. The most important thing she was given, though, was a Spanish-English dictionary, essential for a little girl who did not know one word of English. Neither did her parents.

In 1979, Alfonso graduated from Southridge Senior High School in Miami in the top three percent of her class. Her academic achievement allowed her to obtain a Scholar's Grant to completely pay for her first two years at Miami-Dade Community College in Florida.

She later transferred to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., to complete a computer engineering degree, and graduated in 1984. A year later, she went to work at KSC as a computer design engineer. She developed computer circuit cards and wrote software for various projects related to the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.

Another educational tool Alfonso and her team are developing is a Web site targeted to middle school students. Called "Enter the Firing Room," the site highlights the work of system engineers in the launch firing facilities at KSC. Its goal is to help students learn how the Space Shuttle is readied for launch and introduce the engineers who do the work. The site will feature videos of selected system engineers explaining their day-to-day activities and provide advice to students wishing to pursue similar careers.

"I enjoy developing products that will help our children excel in science and math," Alfonso said. "NASA has always been keenly devoted to furthering education programs. It's truly a rewarding experience to be part of that," she added.

These days, when she's not developing tools for learning, Alfonso mentors young people for several NASA student programs, and frequently speaks to students in Florida schools about her NASA experiences.

Media organizations interested in interviewing Alfonso should contact Tracy Young, KSC Media Relations, at: 321/867-9284.

For information about NASA on the Internet, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov

 

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