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Event offers youngsters chance to interact with agency employees

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CROWNPOINT — Crownpoint Middle School students took a deep breath, then exhaled to propel their straw rockets into the air.

As they scrambled to catch the colorful rockets, Stephanie Brown-Houston explained the role science, technology, engineering and mathematics played in the activity.

Brown-Houston is the education program specialist at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. She, along with various personnel from several NASA field centers, conducted a NASA STEM Day event for middle and high school students on Sept. 12 at Navajo Technical University.

The event, held in collaboration with NTU, offered students hands-on activities that engaged and focused on STEM. It was also designed to increase awareness about NASA, including educational opportunities and internships for students, and provide the opportunity for students to visit with NASA employees.

Brown-Houston said NASA has been developing its outreach programs to help increase the number of Native Americans pursuing STEM careers, with the hope they consider working for the agency.

NTU is among 13 site locations for the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project Aerospace Academy.

The academy is designed to increase participation and retention of underserved and underrepresented students in the areas of STEM.

Priscilla Mobley, activity manager for the academy, said NTU has been a site location since fiscal year 2018 and receives financial assistance from NASA to engage kindergarten through 12th grade students in STEM activities.

"Based on the literature, if you engage students in 36 hours of authentic STEM experiences, you can see the difference and the impact that its making," Mobley said.

During the event, students listened to a panel discussion that included Native Americans who work or worked as an intern at NASA.

The panelists talked about their pathways to NASA, as well as answering questions from students.

Jeremiah O'Callahan, contracting officer at the Glenn Research Center, said everyone talks about the importance of making good grades and studying hard.

While that is acceptable, it is also not wrong to be unsuccessful, he said.

"If you fail, it's all right. If you fail, that's where your lessons come from. That's where you grow. That's where you learn," O'Callahan said.

"I want to also add, don't say you can't. You can," NTU student Nylana Murphy said.

Murphy, who is studying information technology, had a summer internship at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Tables were set up in the university's Wellness Center for the hands-on activities that had students building cardboard replicas of the spacecraft, Orion, and assembling a liquid cooling ventilation garment using a tube sock and tubing.

They also operated robots and viewed NASA projects using Oculus 3D goggles.

Donna Fernandez, adviser at Navajo Preparatory School for New Mexico Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Inc., brought 19 students from the school.

"These hands-on demonstrations help students take what they learn in the classroom and actually see it being applied," Fernandez said.

She added that she enjoyed listening to students ask questions about the activities and demonstrations.

"It allows them to be curious, which is what we want. We want to foster kids' curiosity," Fernandez said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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