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NASA Research Internship Yields Real-World Experience at Home and Abroad

Zoë Sharp, NASA Armstrong, SOFIA Program and STEM Teacher and Researcher Program

My passion for relationships, leadership and learning align when I am working in a classroom with 30 pairs of eyes staring at me. 

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to pursue a career in elementary education. Yet, before my undergraduate career, I was not strong in any STEM disciplines and lacked the confidence to explore them, let alone teach them.

After choosing to obtain a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies at Cal Poly, I discovered a growing curiosity in myself for STEM fields. This made me realize the importance of, and need for, successful and effective STEM teachers in the elementary realm. 

This summer, I was given the opportunity to experience what it is like to work for a big industry and test my personal knowledge of the scientific concepts I had learned in college thanks to a fellowship opportunity at NASA. My fellowship, coordinated through the STEM Teacher and Researcher (STAR) Program, helped me strengthen my confidence in science and develop the skills I need to be a better teacher and STEM public outreach professional.

Applying to the STAR Program and accepting my summer fellowship with NASA was a big step toward gaining more real-world experience. In the past, I have participated in several educational outreach programs that were dedicated to engaging students in STEM. However, I had never truly given myself the opportunity to engage in the professional development that these fields can offer.

Through the professional and programmatic support of the STAR Program and the financial support of the Chevron foundation, another student and I were able to travel with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Mission’s Summer Deployment to Christchurch, New Zealand. 

This two-week trip opened my eyes to what STEM careers really look like. 

Over the course of two weeks, we were able to shadow and observe the day-to-day mission operations associated with a massive international program. We were also encouraged to ask questions and dive deeper into our understanding about the overall SOFIA Mission. I observed Cryo Fills for various powerful scientific instruments, watched an entire 747 aircraft engine get reinstalled, held tours of the SOFIA aircraft for local New Zealand organizations, sat in on missions operation meetings, and discovered the pure beauty of Christchurch.

Likewise, I observed what scientists do during their everyday jobs, like critical lifts of the equipment, deconstructing scientific instruments, and aligning and reconfiguring instruments using data. These daily tasks were fairly different compared to the “mad scientist” tasks I had in mind for real-world STEM jobs.

I assumed the scientists would be doing frequent testings, working in quiet labs, and hardly communicating with one another. However, that was a huge misconception. The only thing that came close to what I imagined were the cryo fills, which called for the scientists to don white lab coats and goggles and use chemicals. 

The one thing that concerned me in the environment was the lack of women in the program. I am aware that this is an industry barrier, and I think SOFIA probably has a high percentage of women in their workplace compared to the industry average. However, this is something that was immediately apparent to me and a reason why more teachers should have opportunities like this.

It is up to teachers and those in STEM careers to engage girls early on so they can see their potential within the STEM fields. It is important to empower students to challenge themselves and be ready to break down barriers even at an early age. 

Along with discovering an amazing city, I discovered a lot about myself and grew professionally. This experience will significantly affect the way I teach. I have already begun brainstorming ways to integrate STEM into the classroom.

From the basics of making my classroom NASA-themed to using project-based, hands-on learning, I want to show my students that enjoyment can be found in STEM fields and anyone can be a scientist. Likewise, I feel more confident about empowering girls to move toward STEM fields, as I feel more connected to them through this fellowship. 

As I move toward the end of my student-teaching career and into a full time teaching job, I will use this experience to guide my pedagogy. In the distant future, I would like to dedicate my career toward STEM and education for elementary students.

I plan to get my graduate degree in Education Administration or Curriculum so that I can be a leader in change within the elementary STEM community. I would like to focus on helping girls become interested in these fields, introduce STEM programs to school districts that would not typically have access to them, and professionally develop teachers in my local school district.

Zoe Sharp (B.S., Liberal Studies, 2015) is enrolled in Cal Poly's Multiple Subject Credential Program. Her project was supported by Chevron and the California State University STEM Teacher and Researcher Program.

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