NASA’s Summer of Innovation and other exhibits spark interest in STEM at HESTEC
By Gail Fagan, Public Affairs Representative
(956) 665-2741
Posted: 09/29/2010
Share |
Jake Reyes likes and makes good grades in math and science but learned Sept. 28 that it's not easy being an astronaut.

The sixth-grade student at Falfurrias Junior High School had to put together a puzzle with no directions while wearing gloves similar to those worn by astronauts who perform tasks in space wearing them.

"It was hard to put the puzzle pieces together with the gloves on," said Reyes, who is an honors student and wants to work for Apple one day. "It was a fun experience."

UTPA Image
Middle school students from South Texas Preparatory Academy got some hands-on experience with some of NASA's robotic vehicles during their visit to HESTEC Sept. 28.
Reyes was a participant in one of the many interactive experiences and exhibits offered by the Summer of Innovation (SOI) initiative sponsored by NASA during HESTEC Week at The University of Texas-Pan American.

SOI is NASA's implementation of President Obama's mandate to Educate to Innovate, a campaign he initiated in November 2009 to improve the participation and performance of America's students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). SOI has a particular emphasis on broadening participation of underrepresented minority and underserved students. SOI employs exciting STEM experiences for students that are intended to impact their academic performance, choice of STEM coursework, degree programs and career paths.

"We have been doing events all over. We have been able to gather close to 4,000 students who will be here at HESTEC this week," said Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first female Hispanic astronaut and director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who helped open this year's HESTEC on Educator Day Sept. 27 and has brought nearly 25 NASA engineers, scientists, educational specialists and co-op students from NASA’s education centers to assist and mentor students during the annual event at UTPA.

Joeletta Patrick, Johnson Space Center Minority University Research and Education Program manager, said HESTEC provides a great opportunity to inspire students.

“This is our chance to inspire, engage and educate as well as to fill in the gaps for this nation. To see their faces when they see the robot it is amazing. It's also amazing for them to see individuals who look like them to be a NASA scientist or a scientist,” she said.

Some of NASA’s numerous displays and interactive exhibits include the robot Centaur, Robonaut, which will go into space with STS 133 in November 2010, and geological materials such as a Martian meteorite visitors can view. Three exhibits on robotics, space suits and living organisms in space are from the Teaching from Space office, which develops education activities on orbit with the astronauts on the International Space Station and space shuttle. The activities are all STEM related and geared to grades 8-12, said Matthew Keil, NASA lead education specialist.

The exhibit on living organisms in space looks at the growth chambers designed and sent into space with basil seeds that were grown there, then returned and distributed to two million school children nationwide so students can compare their growth to ones grown on earth and how the design of the chambers or the different conditions might affect the plants’ growth.

UTPA Image
Students were able to engage in a unique experience in the U.S. Navy's flight simulator during Student Leadership Day at HESTEC.
“My personal goal is to inspire those students who never thought they could do it. I never pictured myself at NASA. I thought I could never do it,” said Keil, who spent six years as a teacher.

He said almost every kind of career is available at NASA – they have even had NASA employees who were cosmetologists. They were needed to develop new technologies to cut hair in space.

Mentoring students at an exhibit on space suits was 25-year-old Johanna Pinero, a native of Puerto Rico, who now works for NASA as a space suit engineer.

She said she aspired to be an astronaut when she saw, as a sixth-grader and a sci-fi fan, the movie “Lost in Space.” She also enjoyed math and received encouragement early on from her parents. As a ninth-grader she participated in the Structure Intern Program at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where she learned about satellites and met a mentor and later entered NASA’s Sharp Program at Georgia Tech University, where she received her aerospace engineering degree in 2009. As a Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, Pinero received a full ride scholarship to pursue a STEM or education-related degree. She participated in four different NASA co-op programs while in college, where she learned that she was more interested in hands-on, human-related work at NASA, particularly their space suit.

“It is one of the closest relationships you can have with an astronaut. The space suit keeps you alive and there is so much knowledge and technology in it, I was drawn to it,” said Pinero, who is planning to pursue a master’s and still interested in being an astronaut or going into the CIA.

She is now on the life support team designing and building a thermal control valve which controls the water flow in the space suit she works on to develop new technologies.

Pinero said she tells visitors to the exhibit to not give into peer pressure from friends who are less interested in gaining an education and high academic achievement.

“Getting an education while you are young may not be considered ‘cool’ but when you are older, you are really going to benefit from it,” she said. “Parents also play a big role. They need to make sure their kids are getting what they need. Everything you do now will really dictate how you are going to live your life in the future.”

Edinburg native and UTPA graduate Rick Ybarra, who earned his mechanical engineering degree in December 2009, is also employed at NASA as a space suit engineer and works on the advanced crew escape suit. He volunteered to work at the exhibit so he could not only talk to young people but also to college students about opportunities at NASA.

Ybarra said he also tells students to take advantage of NASA’s outreach programs. He participated in the High School Aerospace Scholars program.

UTPA Image
Rio Grande Valley middle school students got to examine materials from space, including a Martian meteorite, at NASA's Summer of Innovation exhibition at HESTEC.
“What I am trying to do here with students is hands-on ... try on a helmet, try on a glove. What sparked me as a little one was a shuttle launch I saw on CNN. I hope one of these kids goes on to junior high with a fire and desire for science and technology and engineering that lives on,” he said.

During their morning visit, the middle school students also enjoyed the first appearance of SciGirls at HESTEC, which was made possible by the National Science Foundation. It was one of several other activities teaming up with the SOI to provide outreach regarding STEM education and career opportunities to middle school students.

SciGirls is a national TV series on PBS, which was aired locally in the Rio Grande Valley during the spring and summer. SciGirls has a highly interactive, fun website at that offers activities and profiles of people in a wide and sometimes unusual variety of STEM careers.

SciGirls targets getting middle school females interested in STEM fields although the show and website are designed to not be gender specific.

"They can build an avatar, they can design their room, they can do more than science because girls like to do a lot of things. They like to have their hobbies and their science. We focus on the whole girl," said Adine A. Thoreen, research and outreach specialist for SciGirls.

SciGirls started out as an initiative from another show addressing STEM education for both boys and girls called Dragonfly TV by Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul) public TV.

Some of the prior shows of Dragonfly TV have now been translated and reshot for Spanish-speaking families.

"SciGirls goal is to change how millions of girls think about STEM," Thoreen said. "It's a big, bold purpose. It gets kids excited and to know that there is more to STEM than jobs they think are typical science type jobs."

UTPA Image
TERRI the robot held an interactive session for middle school students during HESTEC Sept. 28. TERRI answered a wide variety of STEM-related questions.
At the SciGirls tent enthusiastic throngs of girls and boys competed at the STEM-related board game titled brainSTEM, which is also available free to teachers. Sixth grade student Jasmine Leon, who attends Barrientes Middle School in Edinburg, said playing brainSTEM was fun.

"Science is one of my favorite subjects because I can learn what goes on in the world," she said.

Although the SciGirls tent closes on Friday, the local PBS station will have a booth at HESTEC Community Day Oct. 2, where students can learn about SciGirls and have a chance to win one of two iPads and a flip camera.

At MathMovesU, a program from Raytheon to promote STEM fields to young people, students were put into teams of four and given a styrofoam cup, one balloon, masking tape, string, four marshmallows and some other items to design and construct an egg drop carrier. When done each of the team captains dropped their team's carrier from the second floor to the first in the UTPA Engineering Building to see if their egg broke completely, cracked or remained intact.

Rujman Khan, a 7th grade student at South Texas Preparatory Academy, was a little disappointed that her team's egg had a few cracks after being dropped but said it was fun getting to work with other people and learn about engineering.

"It makes me want to try other experiments like that. I might go home right now and do that all over again to see what went wrong," she said.

MathMovesU offers a free website — — targeted to middle school students and available to teachers to engage students in math at an age when their interest in the subject typically declines. It is a virtual world where students can create avatars, participate in games and have fun while learning math concepts.

UTPA alumnus Elcira Bermudez, who earned a degree in manufacturing engineering in 2005 and also has a master's degree in engineering management from Southern Methodist University, is now a Raytheon engineer and helped coordinate the MathMovesU activities at HESTEC. She said in the task they were given, they had to consider costs, time constraints and working as a team.

"This is pretty much what engineers do. They come up with a concept - they were given a complicated task, to keep an egg from breaking. From then on they learned how to work in a team environment and to keep costs in line. You can see that they are excited about it. Hopefully it will help them to decide to go into engineering," Benevidez said.

Students also got to meet up with TERRI the Robot in the Library auditorium. TERRI, which stands for The Educational Resource Robot Initiative, is a fully integrated robotic device brought to HESTEC by State Farm Insurance Company and made possible by Conceptual Visions Corporation.

Through TERRI, State Farm not only wanted students to know about what insurance and financial services they provide but also about the career opportunities they offer requiring STEM degrees, particularly in information technology.

The students from Barrientes Middle School in Edinburg giggled and groaned at TERRI’s jokes and got to hear answers to their questions, such as how much do you weigh (325 pounds with his battery), how old are you (born July 4, 2006) and what is your favorite college (The University of Texas-Pan American). They also learned about hurricane preparedness and what five letters are not used as beginning letters in a hurricane name (x, q, z, u and y). TERRI even let them know if he had a girlfriend.

"I am just a robot. I have many friends," said TERRI, who can also sing, do interactive skits and tell stories.

TERRI, on his second visit to HESTEC, can also answer questions about his technical evolution and what it takes to develop a robot and its programming. When asked what his favorite thing about HESTEC is, TERRI was quick to respond.

"My favorite thing is always meeting with the young people and trying to let them know that they should study hard, and work hard to be the best they can be in whatever they choose. One of the biggest problems in the world is the waste of talent and we should train our students to use their talents to the best of their abilities," TERRI said.