Like most kids, Alyssa Wheeler dreamt of becoming an astronaut one day. It started in the third grade when she took her first trip to the state’s Omniplex (now known as Science Museum Oklahoma) and toured the planetarium. She learned about space and the ocean. She realized the world’s magnitude and wanted to learn more about it. She was hooked.
More than 10 years later, Wheeler is still holding on to that dream and recently took steps to reach it.
Wheeler, a Redlands Community College nursing student, was selected to participate in the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) on-site experience. The five-week program started with an online course about NASA missions and research that participants were required to complete during the summer of 2018. It culminated with a four-day on-site event at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, last month. There, students would be able to tour NASA facilities, learn about careers in science and engineering, meet with NASA scientists and compete in NASA projects.
For Wheeler, visiting NASA was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. She has been passionate about space from a young age and was now able to get hands-on experience at the nation’s space headquarters.
“My favorite part of the on-site experience was definitely the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, the Vehicle Assembly Building, and meeting former astronaut Barbara Morgan,” Wheeler said. “The visitor complex was like walking into a candy store. Everywhere we looked was just a reminder of how far science has come, and seeing Atlantis definitely brought tears to my eyes.”
While at NASA, Wheeler and other students formed teams and established fictional companies interested in Mars exploration. Each team was responsible for developing and testing a prototype rover, forming a company infrastructure, managing a budget and developing communications and outreach.
The NCAS experience is tightly connected with STEM, the study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Wheeler and other students participating in NCAS were required to either be concurrently enrolled in or completed at least nine hours of a STEM course. Plus, the final grade needed to be at least a 90 percent. For Wheeler, reaching this status took a lot of hard work, dedication and the gentle push of a few mentors.
One such mentor is Dr. Kate Coughlan, one of Redlands’ science professors. She and the entire science department “are proud of Alyssa” for her accomplishments and thrilled she was able to attend the NCAS experience.
“Anytime I had a question, Dr. Coughlan would take time to sit down with me and help me understand, and she is always so patient. I love talking with her about life in general, and she gives great life and academic advice,” said Wheeler.
Another mentor of Wheeler’s, one she’s known since her junior year of high school, is DeLora Mowery, adjunct chemistry professor. The two have developed a close academic friendship throughout the years.
“Professor Mowery always challenged me in chemistry, and she always had her door open for me to ask questions. Without her as my teacher, I never would have been motivated to learn chemistry or to progress in STEM in general,” Wheeler said.
Additionally, Mr. Travis Black, AP Chemistry teacher at Yukon High School, made an impact on Wheeler. Black had an open door policy with students. Wheeler often took him up on this offer, showing up for class as early as 6 a.m. and working through lunch to get extra help with schoolwork.
Wheeler is determined to get a taste of different STEM fields before she decides what she wants to do. Rather than being influenced by what her friends are doing and where they are going to college, she has chosen to follow her heart and gain experience in the fields she enjoys. She says the NCAS experience helped her to appreciate the various STEM fields and how they apply to everyday life. Now she can make an educated decision.
Wheeler also loves to learn new things. Next on her list: engineering and programming. Her goal is to become a nurse and do medical missions. The ultimate dream is to be a nurse, pilot, astronaut and engineer simultaneously.
“If only it were that easy!” Wheeler exclaimed.
One thing is certain: Wheeler is now equipped with the tools and confidence that is required to reach her goals.
“The NCAS experience is one I will never forget and never take for granted. I learned more about NASA and more about my abilities than I had ever thought possible. Every second of the five-week course and all of the long and hard hours of STEM classes was definitely worth just a small glimpse of what it would be like to work for NASA,” Wheeler said.