Wallops Internship Program Growing

SNOW HILL – In four years, student participation in NASA internships at Wallops Island Flight Facility has increased, from an initial group of nine interns to 33.

“It has really grown,” said said Goddard Space Flight Center Director of Equal Opportunity Employment Brenda Dingwall, who directs the Step Up internship program, to the Worcester County Commissioners Tuesday.          

The paid internships were created to give local students valuable experience that might in turn encourage them to return to the Eastern Shore for work after college graduation.

The Step Up program is probably the only program of its kind in the nation with the county splitting the cost with NASA.

Rural communities on the Eastern Shore, like many other rural communities, tend to lose young people to larger population centers with more and better employment opportunities.

“We’re getting tremendous return on our investment,” Dingwall told the County Commissioners Tuesday.

Typical internship programs see 10 percent of the participants go on to higher study in the internship fields, but the Step Up program has far exceeded that.

“Step Up is currently getting a better than 50 percent return,” Dingwall said.

The local Step Up program has been so successful it might spawn a nationwide initiative.

“The response for Worcester County has been so astounding, I’ve been asked to go up to NASA headquarters and look at how to do this program nationally,” said Dinwall. “Your foresight may affect every child in this nation. You should be incredibly proud.”

Dingwall begins working with Worcester County students in a sixth grade summer camp, and internships are available for high school and college students.

“Let’s face it, the work is cool,” Dingwall said. “They get a chance to try on a career. It’s very different from a summer job. We give them the opportunity to work side by side with engineers and scientists.”

Interns do not just fetch coffee and do the grunt work. Participants do hands-on science, such as mapping Wallops Island and calculating how much it had shifted, which helps calculate launch circles.

Another project interns worked on measured the slopes around fuel tanks, which could be affected by a strong hurricane, and worked out how to contain spills.

Students have also helped investigate geothermal heating, and measured phytoplankton in local waters, which can affect global warming.

About 20 percent of scientists at Goddard worked with an intern last summer and benefited from the students’ enthusiasm, ideas and skills.

“They are so excited about what they learn,” Dingwall said. “The side benefit is the energy we get from just having the kids around the center.”

Science is combined with professional development, including resume writing and professional behavior.

“We teach them how to present. We teach them how to stand in front of a room and talk about what they’ve done,” Dingwall said.

Every Friday, Step Up interns gather together to brief each other on the week’s work.

While participants are not guaranteed work with Goddard or NASA later in life, a good experience through Step Up puts former interns at the top of the pile, because managers know those applicants understand NASA culture and have had professional training in addition to academic.

Sixth graders jump right into science in summer camp, building a mini-satellite in the first year, which measured temperature, pressure, and altitude. Students learned about the atmosphere, circuit boards, calibrating instruments, and GPS. The year after, camp students built mini-Mars Rovers and programmed them to follow a pattern.  In 2009, the camp project will be rockets.

The Step Up program also invites six student counselors from University of Maryland Eastern Shore to experience working with scientists with disabilities. The poverty rate of disabled people tends to be higher than that of the rest of the population, but, Dingwall said, counselors who see disabled scientists doing valuable, highly paid work are more likely to steer disabled clients to science or technology fields.

Also on Tuesday, the commissioners accepted a $5,000 donation from defense contractor BAE Systems Technology Solutions and Services to support the internship program. BAE is the third largest defense contractor in the world.

“We’re just glad to be a part of it,” said BAE Director of Communications Scott Fazekas.

Dingwall said the program demonstrates a rare commitment.

“This is an absolutely unique program. Worcester County has something nobody else has,” Dingwall said. “The community is invested in the students.”