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Students chosen as High School Aerospace Scholars explore different facets of science, technology, engineering and math careers through learning about space travel. | Image: Texas A&M Engineering
Samantha Jones, a junior at Los Fresnos High School (LFHS) in Texas, knew she wanted to pursue a STEM career but questioned which direction to go. Now her vision for her future is clearer, thanks to the Texas High School Aerospace Scholars (HAS) program offered through an innovative partnership between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Texas A&M Engineering Spark! PK-12 Engineering Education Outreach program.

The HAS program, which has existed for more than 20 years, gives selected Texas high school juniors the chance to explore different facets of science, technology, engineering and math careers through learning about space travel.

“We engage students in NASA’s mission through a unique STEM opportunity,” said Jessica Cordero, the manager of NASA’s HAS program. “Statistics tell us that once students get into high school, they start looking at other career paths and opportunities. HAS was developed specifically for juniors because we want them to continue to pursue STEM in college and then become part of the Texas workforce.”

The HAS program serves approximately 1,000 high school juniors annually and most live near Texas’ major urban areas. During the 2020-21 school year, more than 900 Texas students began the 16-week online program; of those, 68% completed the HAS program. 

NASA’s vision is to immerse students in NASA’s work, enhance STEM literacy and inspire the next generation to explore. The partnership with the Spark! program is extending the HAS program to serve underrepresented students who attend high school in low-socioeconomic areas of the state. Los Fresnos, the partnership’s pilot school, is located near SpaceX’s South Texas launch site.

A path to discovery

HAS’s four online modules challenge students to use STEM concepts to plan and create a virtual manned space mission during a span of 16 weeks. “Students are learning how to get to Mars, and once they get there, how to live and work on the planet, and what they would be discovering,” said Cordero.

Participants also attend monthly webinars featuring NASA experts from a variety of STEM fields. During these meetings, these experts describe their NASA role, share details about their projects and answer questions.

The HAS program also offers additional benefits to participants who successfully complete the modules. In addition to earning a science elective credit, students can attend a NASA summer experience where they interact with NASA scientists and engineers, many of whom are Aggies. Before COVID-19, this experience was invitational and limited to 270 participants. However, the pandemic provided a unique opportunity for NASA to develop and implement a five-day gamified virtual experience called “Moonshot,” which is open to all participants who successfully complete the HAS modules. This experience allows students to work in teams to develop a mission to Mars. They are guided by a NASA mentor and monitored by game moderators who are Texas certified teachers.

Beyond the horizon

The Texas A&M College of Engineering’s participation in the HAS program provides an extra level of support to the pilot project’s teachers and students. “Although HAS has been a successful program for more than 20 years, we wanted to create another level of engagement that would help scaffold student success and get them ready for college applications before their senior year,” said Shelly Tornquist, director of the Spark! program.

The first step in creating LFHS’s pilot program involved tapping three teachers — Javier Martinez, Hector Penafor and Dr. David Rivera — and then selecting the school’s initial cohort of 24 HAS participants. “We make it a point of pride to have strong relationships with students,” said Rivera, who teaches LFHS’s advanced physics classes. “This program seemed like a natural fit for us. And the students went above and beyond to balance their schoolwork with the HAS modules.”

That sense of community — which also included a student-created online forum — helped 79% of the initial LFHS participants complete all modules, topping the program average of 68%. “I think having that level of community allowed the students to thrive knowing that there are other people going through that same curriculum and working hard,” Cordero said. “And these kids have the opportunity to have Texas A&M in their corner — talk about a cheerleader!” Spark! holds periodic webinars for the LFHS students, provides enrichment support to the teachers and will host HAS participants and teachers on campus in College Station during the fall 2021 semester.

Mission accomplished

The pilot program has been so successful that it is quickly catching the attention of other Los Fresnos school district’s faculty, staff and students. “Now it’s become something in the district that teachers and counselors are asking about,” said Penafor, who teaches advanced math classes. “It’s also starting to catch wind with other students.”

LFHS will expand to a second cohort of students during the 2021-22 school year, which will give the initial cohort the opportunity to learn how to mentor their classmates. The teachers are enjoying watching these students bloom. “Typically, students who are interested in engineering are introverts. You don’t hear us talking, but you can hear the gears working inside,” said Martinez, who teaches engineering. “When students find a passion that they really like, then they really start talking about these things. It’s a great reward when you see the students’ excitement because of what they’re experiencing.”

Like many of her classmates, Jones has risen to the HAS challenge and is now coming into her own.  “The most challenging assignment I participated in was definitely one of the math activities. It required me to learn and solve equations with multiple variables and amounts. After this assignment, I learned to just have faith in my work and to not focus so harshly on what I might have done wrong, but rather what I know I did right.” she said. “Before joining HAS, I was battling between choosing architecture or aeronautics as a career. However, after completing the program, I am more than sure that I want to become either an aerospace engineer or an astrophysicist.”