Over the summer, most teens are expected to be working summer jobs, preparing for their upcoming sports seasons or hanging out with friends. Hearing famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin speak is less expected, let alone spending the summer conducting weather analysis with NASA scientists or marine science in the field with William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science researchers but that’s just what 18 gifted rising 11th- and 12th-grade students did for a month this summer at the NASA/VIMS Summer Residential Governor’s School, hosted by the W&M Center for Gifted Education.
Because this year was NASA Langley’s Centennial Celebration, the students were able to participate in a variety of unique opportunities. The most exciting for most was the small-group address by Aldrin, arranged by the Virginia Space Grant Consortium. He spoke on the importance of continuing the space program and of his experiences walking on the moon. “Mostly, the students were in awe of being in his presence,” said Margee Greenfield, director of the Governor’s School and adjunct faculty member at Blue Ridge Community College.
Since 1993, this program has been serving high-achieving high school students throughout Virginia and providing participants with authentic experiences in engineering, aeronautical or marine research. Students quickly get involved and are expected to contribute to the completion of the project, working alongside professionals and graduate students. These students spent their time engaging in academically challenging research projects already underway with both NASA and VIMS researchers.
Each student is assigned a mentor who oversees their involvement with a real-world research project. These researchers welcome students to work on their professional team for four weeks, giving students an invaluable experience in a real research setting. “Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know talented professionals who display a commitment (above and beyond their "real" jobs) to those who will follow in their footsteps and will contribute to the next level of discovery,” said Greenfield.
At the conclusion of their four weeks, the engineering students created a presentation on their research and experiences to be shared with their research mentors and other Langley staff and graduate students at the National Institute of Aerospace. Marine science students created and presented a research document similar to reports that professional marine science researchers create. Students this year participated in research projects including drones and robotics, computer programming and coding, weather data analysis and materials science.
Greenfield also explained the value the students receive from participating in the Governor’s School. “The NASA students are assured that, because of this program, they are now in the NASA pipeline, from which NASA employees are hired,” she said. “The VIMS students have produced college-level research papers (as rising 11th and 12th graders) and have contributed to national and international research in the field.”
She added, “These students made a difference this summer. How many high school students can say that?”