Students Inspired by STEM Mentors
Lauren Cardamone, a senior at Bayside High School in Palm Bay, Florida, hopes to become a rocket scientist, and eventually, an American astronaut.

Her interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, careers was reinforced when she participated in the Interdisciplinary National Science Project Incorporating Research and Education Experience, or INSPIRE, project at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

INSPIRE is one of four agency-level projects that the center's Education Office plans and manages for NASA to encourage students to learn about STEM fields. The other projects are the Minority University Research and Education Programs Small Projects; the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Space Grant; and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

"I think NASA education programs, such as INSPIRE, are extremely important for students because they expose us to a real work environment that is both challenging and exciting," Cardamone said.

According to Berta Alfonso, who is lead for Kennedy-managed agencywide education programs, the center plays a unique role in providing guidance and direction to all 10 NASA centers for program implementation. Lauren Cardamone

Image above: Lauren Cardamone, a senior at Bayside High School in Palm Bay, Fla., is a participant in the INSPIRE project at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Wood

"Kennedy formulates what the agency will provide and works with NASA Headquarters," Alfonso said. "We handle the high-level planning of what will be implemented each year and at what levels based on funding and other concerns."

Cardamone and Justin Birbal, now a freshman at Brevard Community College studying industrial engineering, were among the ninth through 12th graders from Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico who spent eight weeks at Kennedy last year under the supervision of a mentor.

Steve Chance, who has been national project manager of INSPIRE since its implementation in April 2008, said, "This project provides students and parents across the country a direct link to all nine NASA centers and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as they explore STEM education, careers and opportunities outside the school setting."

Chance said INSPIRE provides about 1,780 students an online community that links them with other like-minded students with interests in aeronautics and space exploration. INSPIRE also provides students opportunities to participate in a variety of hands-on experiences, including one-day VIP tours of a center, a two-week collegiate visit and paid internships at a NASA center.

Justin Birbal

Image above: Justin Birbal, now a freshman at Brevard Community College, spent eight weeks with the INSPIRE project at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Wood

Cardamone was a high school junior when she interned at the Space Station Processing Facility with Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. under the Checkout Assembly and Payload Processing Services contract.

"I wanted to participate in INSPIRE because it looked like an amazing opportunity to learn and experience NASA and the space program," Cardamone said. "I have always had an interest in rocketry and space, so this was a program I really wanted to be involved with."

For her project, Cardamone helped make sure the Operations and Checkout Facility's altitude chamber was operational as it was renovated for next-generation spacecraft.

Through her mentor, Kim Shepherd, an electrical engineer with ASRC Aerospace Corp., Cardamone was able to tour the Vehicle Assembly Building and Launch Pad 39A, and view space shuttle and rocket launches.

Shepherd said his motivation to be an INSPIRE mentor came from the very few but defining moments in his own childhood.

"Someone was there for me to point me in the right direction and was able to say the right words to instill motivation and the drive to do something great with my life," Shepherd said.

Birbal was in 11th grade when he first participated in INSPIRE, and returned during his senior year last summer. During those two internships, he developed and then perfected a database for audit findings for the center's Business System's Management Branch of the Center Operation Directorate.

"Participating in the INSPIRE program gave me the chance to work side-by-side with wonderful and helpful mentors who helped me decide my career direction," Birbal said. "It's a way for students to be exposed to real-life jobs, as well as different professions."

Birbal's mentor was Delia Markham, an audit program manager in the branch. She's been mentoring students for more than 14 years.

Markham said, "I became interested in mentoring because as a mother of four I believe firsthand personal experience can help identify individual talents."

For more information about INSPIRE and other NASA education projects managed by NASA's Kennedy Space Center, visit:
› Education @ Kennedy

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center