How Do You Get to NASA?
A group of parents and students watch a videoconference
For musicians, there's an old joke that says, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"

The answer, of course, is "Practice."

Image to right: Parents see first-hand at Family Night the technology their children used for the program. Credit: NASA

If that joke were being told about NASA, the punch line would probably be "Study hard." But while that's a great short answer to the question, the long answer is a little more complex. The truth is, there is more than one path to a career at NASA. The agency has a very diverse workforce. Members of the NASA team work in a variety of fields, have a variety of levels of education and arrived at NASA in a variety of ways.

Students at Phenix City Intermediate School in Alabama, a participant in the NASA Explorer School program, recently learned this firsthand. As part of a careers project, students interviewed workers at two NASA centers about their jobs and backgrounds. Thanks to NASA Digital Learning Network™, students were able to videoconference with NASA scientists and engineers at Langley Research Center in Virginia and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Among those interviewed was Roy Bridges, an astronaut who served as director of Langley prior to his recent retirement.

To complete the careers project, every fifth- and sixth-grade class at the school "adopted" a NASA worker. Within the classes, students were split into different teams, each of which had a different task. Some students were responsible for preparing questions. Others conducted the interview, and others used that information to put together their report.

A student project board with information cut-outs
Image to left: Students interviewed a variety of NASA workers for their career presentations. Credit: NASA

Once the projects were completed, the students' parents were invited to the school for Family Night. They were able to see the results of their children's work and witness a DLN videoconference themselves. Members of the NASA education team were on hand for the event. NASA Aerospace Education Specialist William O. Robertson showed the group a relic from NASA's past that also represents its future -- a sample of actual moon rocks. The agency is currently carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration, which will lead to a return to the moon, followed by voyages to Mars and beyond. Today's students will be an important part of carrying out that Vision.

Phenix City Intermediate School principal Joe Blevins said, "This event has been very important to our school. It allows our students to see how skills they are learning today are used at NASA. I believe it has inspired our students to work harder to reach their goals."

NASA officials hope the Phenix City event will be a first step toward a new DLN program to help Explorer Schools excite students about possible careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by connecting them to NASA workers. A similar program designed by NES/DLN staffers Rachel Manzer and Tisha Hoaas was conducted at Langley, and the partnership between the center, Marshall and the Phenix City Intermediate School allowed it to reach a new audience. The success of the program there could lead to other schools being able to participate in similar projects. Students who had already conducted the interviews could mentor other students who would conduct them next. Marshall Space Flight Center's Scott Anderson said he is excited about the possibilities of using videoconferencing technology to connect students with NASA experts. He said, "Who better to help inspire the future scientists, engineers and astronauts than someone working in that field today at NASA?"

Phenix City Intermediate School was part of the first group selected for the NASA Explorer School program in 2003. At the Family Night event, students and parents said that the partnership has been productive. According to one of the school’s students, Jerica, "We learn more about space and astronauts. It's more than I've ever known at other schools." She plans to use what she is learning about math and science as a teacher someday. Another student, Al, said that what he has learned has inspired him to be a scientist. "I want to go to the moon," he said. Deborah Fleshman is the parent of a child in his first year at the school. "There are opportunities here that I never thought he'd be able to have in an intermediate school," she said.

Parent Garrett Williams
Image to left: Garrett Williams was one of the many parents who attended the Family Night event. Credit: NASA

Another parent, Garrett Williams, said, "I am very excited to attend NASA Night with my son to learn about space expeditions and the people that contributed to higher learning in outer space." He said his son was looking forward to an upcoming school field trip to Space Camp.

While no one path to NASA works for everybody, students can learn what led some of the agency's current engineers and scientists there. Perhaps someday some of these students will be able to tell children their own stories of how they went to work for NASA.

Related Resource
NASA Explorer School Program
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David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services