NASA seeks students for three-day Mars rover simulation, contest in Houston

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By Regis L. Roberts

NASA is planning a new exploration mission, but instead of exploring a far-away heavenly body, it is setting its sights on Texas community college students.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will be welcoming students to participate in its Community College Aerospace Scholars Program.

The program is a three-day trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston where students will meet astronauts and engineers and even see Mission Control, an exclusive experience, Dr. Rose Zambrano, student development professor at Palo Alto College, said.

Zambrano, who has been involved in the program for its four years, said the program is more than just a fun tour of NASA facilities. It is a rigorous real-life simulation to test student ability to form a team and plan and build a rover similar to those used to explore Mars.

The deadline is Feb. 15.

Zambrano said she and other representatives from the colleges will pick students from the list of applicants they think would do well and forward their information to NASA.

Engineering Coordinator Dan Dimitriu said that along with the application, students will have to take an online test that includes information on NASA, robotics and space.

To qualify, students must be enrolled in a Texas community college majoring in either science, engineering, math or computer science and have a GPA of at least 3.5. A security check will be administered by NASA.

Deborah Martin, college public information officer, said students are divided into teams and given the task of devising and executing a project.

Because NASA often works with contractors for various projects, the idea is to create a company — complete with name and logo — devise a proposal with schematics and budget before the building stage, Zambrano said.

Martin said in year’s past, students were tasked with building a rover that could perform in an obstacle course — picking up rocks, traversing obstacles.

Dimitriu said the program will continue with the robotics task. “That is the standard project that they’re working,” he said.

Judges from NASA will determine which team performed the best in creating a project and seeing it through.

The teams will be a mixture of students from each college. Dimitriu said this college has had the largest representation for the program with eight students, compared with an average of six at other colleges.

“We want a new generation of students aware of this program,” he said.

This will be beneficial to NASA, because there is a shortage of students going into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Zambrano said.

Zambrano said students are given a chance to see and experience things most people do not: a chance to network with NASA and other science professionals, not to mention, having a cool thing to put on a résumé.

Ben Rodriguez, a mechanical engineering senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the program was a good experience.

“It was like the equivalent of the engineering Super Bowl,” said Rodriguez, who was an engineering major here until fall 2005.

He said his team was in the running to win when he participated in April 2005, but some bad data set them back and lost them the opportunity to add $100,000 to the team budget.

For more information, call Dimitriu at 733-2836 or visit for an online application.


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