STEM students take on NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Hill-Lopes Scholars Program offers students experiential learning opportunities through site visits with major STEM organizations

By GRACE HOGGARTH '22 on April 2, 2024

TU students stand in one of NASA Goddard's facilities
Photo by NASA/GSFC/Tabatha Luskey

It’s not often students can say they’ve had a peek behind the curtain of operations at a major space flight center. For students in the Hill-Lopes Scholars program, their visit to NASA Goddard Space Flight Center was an unforgettable and empowering experience.

Students watched NASA employees test parts of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, took part in a panel discussion with women employees with backgrounds in environmental science, engineering and earth science education, and toured the campus and testing facilities.

The New Space Telescope: A Women-Led Project

A focal point of the tour included the workings of the space telescope—that answered questions about the expansion of the universe, dark energy, exoplanets and more—which is set to launch by May 2027.

Students were in awe to learn the space telescope project is primarily women led, with women at the helm of jet propulsion engineering, electronic engineering and outreach.

During the panel discussion, Trena Ferrell, Ph.D., earth science education and public outreach lead, and Julie Hoover, senior communications & STEM engagement specialist, Joint Polar Satellite System, shared their experiences working at NASA and offered insight into career and internship resources.

TU students observe engineers working on the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope
Students observe NASA engineers in action as they work on the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Tabatha Luskey

Student Learning Beyond the Classroom

For Britney Whittington ’24, this visit was a dream come true. A computer science major with a minor in astronomy, she aspires to work with organizations like NASA as a telescope engineer.

Whittington began at TU during the pandemic, and her studies were all virtual. Still, the Hill-Lopes Scholars program helped her bridge personal gaps, build professional and networking skills and feel like part of a community.

This support led Whittington to partner with TU professors Jennifer Scott, Ph.D., and Dylan Hilligoss, Ph.D., to reinstitute and program TU’s telescope and pursue internships and career field application opportunities like the Astro Scholars program at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University— where she will be returning for an internship in telescope programming this summer.

“ Being in such a male-dominated field can be a little intimidating and tough, but knowing there is a community of other women in STEM going through similar experiences and learning about all these skills with the Hill-Lopes community has been wonderful. I don’t know where I would be without it. ”

Britney Whittington, Hill-Lopes Scholar, ’24

TU Collaboration Led to NASA Visit 

Hill-Lopes Scholars program coordinator Kristin Pinkowski believes it was an ideal time for students to visit the space flight center. “We have students who are really interested in pursuing NASA, space telescope work and astronomy. NASA hires geologists, computer scientists and more, and we want to highlight those careers and demonstrate how rich this area is with employers. I’m glad the students are finally getting this opportunity.”

This site visit was a collaboration with the TU Career Center and assistant director of STEM career education Tanja Swain. Through this partnership, the site visit was open to all TU students—something Swain finds valuable for furthering career education across campus.

“Collaborating with the Hill-Lopes Scholars program has been so helpful because the Hill-Lopes scholars are leaders on campus and share these opportunities with other students. We can host more visits like this and get better student engagement and participation,” says Swain.

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