From making pizzas to building spacecrafts

September 16, 2015

It’s crazy to think someone can start out making pizzas in high school and end up playing a pivotal role in the creation of the Orion spacecraft. It can happen… and it did.

NASA’s mission planning and analysis lead, Nujoud Merancy, emphasizes, “It’s not about where you start, it’s where you finish.” 

Merancy was the special Skype guest speaker for the 6th through 8th grade girls who participated in the Rocket Girls Camp put on by the Challenger Learning Center (CLC) at Heartland. The camp is a four-day session which teaches girls about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Rocket Girls hopes to inspire young women to become interested in STEM careers and gives attendees the opportunity to speak with female professionals in the field.

“We want to get girls excited about STEM careers and get them thinking about their futures,” said Susan Evens, Rocket Girls organizer. “At camp, we can show them how cool STEM jobs are and how these women got their career going.”

The hard work doesn’t stop once you get your dream job

While Merancy spoke about the “cool” things she gets to do in her job like travel around the world, work with NASA astronauts and design space mission plans, she also stressed how challenging her job can be and how hard she had to work to get to where she is today. 

Merancy told the girls, “whatever you do, you have to work hard at it. None of these careers are easy. Even if it looks easy for one person, it’s all about you and your commitment. It’s really up to you and your enthusiasm and continuing to just work at it.”

Communication is key in a STEM career

Some of the skills Merancy encouraged the girls to work on if they desire a career in the STEM field is communication and teamwork. She added many people believe those who have a career in STEM sit at their desks with their calculators and work on spreadsheets all day. However, she said this is not always the case. In fact, she argues “the most important skill for engineers to learn is communication. You can be the smartest person in the room but if you can’t tell other people what your idea is, it’s not going to happen.”

It seems communication is a skill Rocket Girl campers already understand. Without hesitation, girls enthusiastically ran up to the computer when given the opportunity to speak to and ask Merancy questions. An opportunity which may not have been possible years ago without the technology of Skype and Twitter, which CLC Flight Director Libby Norcross utilized to reach out to Merancy.

Camper Alyson Ficca said, “I like how we have the resources to speak to people who actually work for NASA. You would think it would be all about the astronauts but there are so many people who are behind it all, so to have these speakers is a good learning experience.”

An interactive and fun learning environment

In addition to hearing from female professionals, campers also learn about the engineering design process in a fun and interactive way. Campers make “astronaut food” including their own granola to learn about nutrition and calorie intake in space. Girls also made LED bracelets that light up when placed on their wrist and created circuit boards. Campers describe the camp as “awesome” and enjoy “learning ordinary skills as well as things we’ll do in our everyday jobs and lives.” While the girls appreciate the hands-on nature of the camp, they say the teachers are what make Rocket Girls truly special.

“The teachers are my favorite part and their friendly attitude. Their passion is what gets us hyped up,” said camper Yvin Shin.

Written by: Olivia Mulvey