Ben Arthur spent three weeks this summer as an undergraduate intern in the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technical Scholars program after being part of VASTS' first class, four years ago. Taylor spoke at a luncheon in which he offered a personal look at the program. This is his speech.
An Intern's Story: I Want to Work Alongside My Mentors
By: Ben Arthur, University of Virginia
For my talk today, I have two simple goals—the first of which is to describe the VASTS summer academy from both a student and undergraduate assistant's point of view. Second, I hope to convey the impact VASTS has had on my choice of study in college and on my career aspirations in engineering.
In 2008, VASTS's inaugural year, I was lucky enough to have a high school teacher who recognized my interest in NASA enough to suggest I apply for the program. And so I signed up for the course without fully knowing what I was getting myself into—without knowing that the VASTS summer academy would eventually excite a new passion for space exploration and kick-start my future.
While it is difficult to condense my week at Langley into just a few short thoughts, my VASTS experience as a scholar was, more than anything, incredibly energizing. Seemingly contradictory due to the lack of rest during the week, the summer academy is as energizing as it is physically and mentally demanding. The NASA engineers and scientists who serve as our mentors are a large part of the energetic environment, bringing clear passion for their work and an equal amount of excitement for the program. Their role as mentors goes beyond helping to plan the Mars mission architecture; they are role models who represent the rewards of pursuing a career for which you truly have a passion.
I remember feeling awe-struck the first time I met the "Getting There" team mentors in 2008, but what I remember most is that my eagerness to talk with them only increased with each day of the academy.
Dr. Prasun Desai, for example, who is now on assignment to NASA headquarters, was Langley lead for the Mars Exploration Rover mission that successfully landed the rovers Spirit and Opportunity on Mars in 2004 and for the Mars Phoenix Lander in 2007.
I was also fortunate enough, both in 2008 and again this summer, to work with Guillo Gonzalez, the avionics lead for the launch abort system Pad-Abort 1, and in my opinion, one of the warmest and most personable mentors involved with the program.
For a high school student, and even now as a college student, the opportunity to spend a week interacting with such experts is invigorating. You cannot help but to feel more confident about your own future when the mentors express their hope that many of the VASTS students will someday work by their side.
As an undergraduate assistant for the past two summer academies, I have been able to maintain a similar interaction with the NASA mentors, making it an easy sell when I was invited to join the program staff again this year. Additionally, I have the unique opportunity as an undergraduate assistant to view the mission design process from a more external perspective.
Three years ago, I was in the position of looking for answers to the multitude of questions that arise during a week at VASTS. Now I am able to answer many of those questions for the scholars, and the challenge is to not insert myself into their mission.
The summer academy is designed to simulate the real-world tradeoffs characteristic of the engineering design process. And one of the most valuable lessons students can learn from their experience is that—especially in engineering—there is often not a single right answer, but rather a set of solutions that fit within your constraints. As an undergrad, it is my job to guide the students to this realization while allowing them to struggle for solutions.
Having learned this same lesson myself as a scholar, I entered my first year of college, where answers are certainly not hand-fed, with a noticeable leg up on many of my classmates. The rigor of the VASTS summer academy, with its strong focus on engineering design, better prepared me—in just a week—for my first year of college courses than any of my most advanced high school classes. Having now been a part of six summer academies, I can attest that VASTS gives aspiring scientists and engineers the tools to succeed in STEM careers.
In my personal experience, the dividend was even greater. As somebody with a natural bent toward science and math growing up and a lingering curiosity about space travel, I often considered aerospace engineering as a career option in high school. So after being accepted to the VASTS program, I looked toward the summer academy as an opportunity to validate that interest. After just five days on Center, I graduated from the academy energized by the thought of playing a hand in the first human mission to Mars—no longer a doubt in my mind that I wanted to major in aerospace engineering.
What was just an interest in space exploration before VASTS has developed into a passion that now drives my career goals. I hope to work for NASA in support of our nation’s excursions beyond low Earth orbit in the coming decades. The networks I have formed both as a VASTS student and undergraduate assistant should help to funnel me through the NASA pipeline so that I may soon work alongside many of my mentors to send a human crew to Mars.
In closing, VASTS is a truly unique experience, as it is one of the few STEM programs in Virginia that immerses high school students so wholly and realistically into the engineering design process. Had I not attended the summer academy three years ago, I would likely not have the same career aspirations that I do today. For that reason, I owe NASA Langley Research Center and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium an enormous debt of gratitude. Thank you again, and enjoy the student’s presentation this afternoon.
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