|AN “OUT OF THIS WORLD” EXPERIENCE|
Gillian MacInerney, CSE communications intern
|When senior engineering student Sarah Rose first encountered the Pathways Programs at NASA, she was a high school junior. Now, nearly four years later, it has become an integral part of her college career that may in fact hold her first post-graduate employment opportunity.
NASA Pathways is a co-opportunity program offered to collegiate students with profound interest and skills in engineering relating to space. Made possible in December 2010 when President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13562, NASA’s Pathways Program aims to provide a clear path to federal employment for students and recent graduates. It consists of three components: the internship program, the recent graduates program and the Presidential Management Fellows.
Rose participated in the internship program, which provides students enrolled “in a variety of educational institutions with paid opportunities to work in agencies and explore federal careers while still in school” (http://nasajobs.nasa.gov/studentopps/Pathways.htm). The co-opportunity program requires students to spend a minimum of two non-sequential semesters (fall, spring or summer) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to enhance both their education experience at their school and their ‘employment’ experience.
As Rose began her second academic year at TCU, it came time to apply for and select a summer internship. Still on NASA’s email list, she began to receive emails regarding Pathways. “At first I didn’t want to do the Pathways co-op program, because I didn’t want to graduate late or anything like that,” said Rose. Instead she applied to attend a regular NASA summer internship – one that would not involve balancing semesters between TCU and the Johnson Center.
A person whom Rose contributes much of her interest to attend the program is Stephen Weis, her professor at the time. “Having him as a bulldog in my corner to make sure my education didn’t suffer was great,” said Rose. “Dr. Weis was the one person who stopped and said, ‘OK let’s make sure this is going to work for you and that this is actually going to be beneficial.’ He asked the tough questions, like ‘How are you going to keep your course load in line?’ Once I showed him that it was all feasible and that it wasn’t going to ruin my education, then he was all for it.”
Rose’s first tour at the Johnson Center was in spring 2013, where she worked in the Crew and Thermal Systems Division. Of the three branches within this division, she was located in EC2, which works mostly with mechanical design.
“What I was actually doing had nothing to do with space, which was kind of funny,” said Rose. She spent the semester designing a portable tensile-testing apparatus, which is essentially a device you can attach to samples of material, and the device’s load cell will tell you how much force it takes to break something off of that material. Rose and her co-workers nicknamed this device the “button tester,” and she got to demonstrate it in her final presentation at the end of the semester. “It was a really good confidence-building project for me,” said Rose. “It gave me a good scope of the whole engineering process.”
Rose returned to Fort Worth that following summer, then ventured back to Houston for her second tour at the Johnson Center in fall 2013. “I wanted the real, true NASA experience, so I went over to Mission Operations. The division I was in dealt with extravehicular operations, or EVA or spacewalks,” said Rose. Here she was certified to instruct a class on the “guts” of the space suit to trainers and flight controllers.
The following spring Rose returned to campus to her first engineering courses in a full year, as the credits she needed were not available during the summer semester. “I received some one of the worst grades of my life my first semester back after being gone a year because I had become used to not doing homework all the time,” said Rose.
Rose says one of the downfalls of being a student versus a NASA employee is that as an employee, work is on company time. “When I was done at 5 or 6 p.m., I was done for the night – at school, you just don’t stop.” Rose also reflected on the many social adjustments required upon her return, as most of her classmates had passed along to higher lever courses. “I didn’t have my little engineering crew anymore, so that was a hard transition.”
This past summer was her last tour at the Johnson Center, where she worked in the life sciences department. Her group, Habitability and Human Factors, looked at the ergonomics of task performance, specifically for the Orion, a crew vehicle NASA is currently preparing to go into deep space.
“I worked primarily in the Orion mockups and developed hardware components that would mimic the real thing to use in evaluations,” said Rose. “I would look at Orion and then figure out how to create its replica inexpensively and quickly, but still be able to test how you’re using it and the extent that it is working.”
Reflecting on her co-opportunity experience, she would recommend it to some, but not all students with an interest in space or any other specialized area of industry.
“For co-opping in general, if you know you’re interested in the co-op program and that it is in the general direction you want for your future, I say go for it. That’s going to give you the most experience. Then you come back to school and you know what questions to ask and what you want to learn because you’ve gotten that taste of the real world,” said Rose. “If you’re kind of loafing along and trying to figure out what you want, co-opping can make it really hard to keep that momentum going. You’ve got to want it.”
She also notes that this co-opportunity made her learn to deal with work problems in a realistic way. “There’s not an answer in the back of the book, so having to do that work knowing, ‘Okay I don’t know how to tackle this problem, so I’m just going to run at it and keep trying different things and find something that sticks.’”
As Rose embarks on her final year at TCU and on her Senior Design project, she says her biggest source of support has been from the faculty and staff in the CSE. “The professors I’ve had here all care about me so much. My schoolwork has never felt like just schoolwork; it has always felt like I’m turning it into a boss who cares a lot about me and knows what’s up in my life. There’s a high level of accountability in my work that I got from here,” said Rose.
She also credits her successes in the educational workplace to the engineering department as a whole. “For most engineering jobs, you can’t learn the tasks of your job in the classroom; you have to learn it there, based on the way you do things, the way you find data. A good engineering program is going to teach you how to think and how to approach those problems, and TCU’s engineering department definitely did that for me.”
When she’s not in Capstone Senior Design meetings or studying for an exam, you can find Rose playing her guitar and contemplating the future. She has recently accepted a position at NASA in the Crew and Thermal Systems Division, where she first began her co-op journey at the Johnson Center. Her recent engagement to longtime boyfriend Bryan Wright is another exciting aspect to her bright future.
Rose’s academic career here at TCU has certainly been one for the books, and her future achievements will surely land her amongst the stars in her field.
Student Spotlight – Sarah Rose
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