NASA STEM Program at York College is making a difference

by Nazrul Khandaker (professor of geology and director of the NASA MAA Program)

Several participants from the MUREP Aerospace Academy or MAA and SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy) K1-12 program are the beneficiaries of NASA STEM education and eloquently expressed their satisfaction by saying “it was a trigger and sparked an interest to value science, mathematics, and engineering – eventually magnetized to choose STEM disciplines and become professionals.” Sol De Leon (now attending CUNY Hunter College).

Recently several former students of the NASA STEM Program ended up in majoring STEM disciplines and their credentials were accepted by reputed universities such as Georgia Institute of Technology, CUNY Sophie Davis Medical School, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Hofstra University, Northeastern University, etc.

Sol De Leon (Currently a pre-med student at Hunter College studying Computer Science and Chemistry (Biochemistry) with a minor in Mathematics, anticipated graduation in 2023. Matched into the "Genomics & Computational Biology Graduate Group at University of Pennsylvania, summer 2022 program. The acceptance letter said, “On behalf of the Penn IDEAL Research Summer Undergraduate Internship Program (SUIP) Admissions Committee, we are delighted to extend an offer to you to join the 2022 class of SUIP interns in the Biomedical Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Out of over 700 applications, your commitment to science from your classwork to your research experience indicates your potential for success and is amongst the qualities we strive for in our science community. We are excited to welcome you to Penn and the great city of Philadelphia to garner the experience necessary for your long-term educational and career goals in biomedical science.”

Dr. Nazrul Khandaker, professor of geology and the program director of the MAA at York College conducted a longitudinal survey of the former MAA graduates and reached out to numerous students. The outcome of the survey was very fruitful, as several participants responded back and provided candid assessments of the program by highlighting its effectiveness in serving minorities and preparing them to enter reputed colleges for higher education as well. The NASA-funded program (free of cost) recently celebrated its 30,000-graduation event and benefitted from corporate partnerships supported by AT&T, ConEdison, and National Grid. Being in southeast Queens, it serves mostly underrepresented student body and enables students to earn STEM hours during Saturdays (fall and spring) and summer. Students are exposed to basic mathematics and sciences, engineering design, rocketry, aerospace-related activities, robotics, programming, and coding.

Sol De Leon’s Reflection about the NASA STEM Program

Question: How did MAA motivate you to pursue STEM or prepare you to undertake challenging STEM opportunities?

Answer: Being a student in SEMAA is one of my earliest memory of exposure to the sciences. Being surrounded by flight simulator lab, planetary science, robotics, and rocketry at an early age made me excited about STEM. I remember fondly heading out to the grassy area of the York campus waiting with great anticipation to send my rocket into the air. I remember building hot air balloons out of tissue paper and many “mission failed” but good attempts at landing a plane in the AEL lab. By the time I was a TA at MAA, I decided I wanted to seriously continue computer science as a field of study. MAA made science accessible, and fun and it showed me real-world applications and meaningful impact STEM can bring.

Question: What advice do you want to give to the students, particularly Latino/Latina?

Answer: Take every opportunity that crosses your path. Don’t wait until later on in your education or career to involve yourself in enrichment programs; it is CRUCIAL to begin now. If you have as much of an inclination toward a particular field, do some research about programs in that field. There are many organizations willing to take students under their wing to teach them something, you must be proactive in searching for them. Make sure your winter; summer, and spring breaks are spent involved in an activity, building your skills, or learning something new. If you show interest early through these activities, it will be much easier for you to find the next opportunity and another and another. Remember, every student at your school studies for classes, what sets you apart is that you study for classes AND the experiences and skills you bring to the table.

My second piece of advice is to stay in touch with people who have supported you, these people can grow into valuable mentors that bring years of experience and know the industry well. Mentors are an important part of growth; you can learn from the experiences of others and gain a new perspective on the fields receive guidance and they can even connect you to valuable resources specific to your career interest.

Violeta Escandon  (First-Year Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering student at the Georgia Institute of Technology becoming one of the recipients of the prestigious A. James Clark Scholars Awards (JCSA). JCSA Program at Georgia Tech is dedicated to creating engineers of the future. 

Violeta also made the Dean’s List in the fall of 2021. At Georgia Tech, students are exposed to cutting-edge academic research programs and thought leaders in business and entrepreneurship. However, it also goes beyond academics – students gain experience and knowledge through hands-on learning and real-world problem-solving.

Violeta Escandon Correa is from Bogota, Colombia, and moved to Queens, New York when she was 8 years old. She attended the engineering academy at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering, and Architecture and ranked third in her class. She was also in the National Honor Society and was the captain of the varsity volleyball team. Violeta has completed over 250 of community service, serving her school with fundraisers, volunteering at JumpsStart Tutoring, supporting staff members at summer camps, and helping patients at Determination Physical Therapy. She has presented published research at the Geological Society of America and has conducted research on her own at the York College Summer Research Program. She has also participated in the NASA MUREP Aerospace Academy Program, where she constructed and coded a control remote car from scratch. In her free time, Violeta exercises, cooks, and explores with friends.

Isaiah Jamna’s Reflections (accepted into CUNY’s Sophie Davis School of Medicine and NYU)

Question: How did MAA motivate you to pursue STEM or prepare you to undertake challenging STEM opportunities?

Answer: Having been a student in the MAA program myself during my elementary school years, I had exposed to the various areas of study that involve the fundamental concepts of STEM. Being in the MAA program from the first grade sparked my interest in the sciences, which has remained with me throughout middle and high school. Over the course of my secondary education, I have become particularly interested in biological and health sciences as a result of both academic and personal circumstances. As a student in MAA, I had engaged in collaborative STEM activities, which I enjoyed, motivating me to pursue such opportunities outside of the program. I had joined afterschool clubs that provided the same experiences as MAA, which maintained the same STEM concepts that I was academically inclined to. Later on, in high school, I had taken the opportunity to pursue a career in the sciences by applying to the Sophie Davis Health Professions Mentorship Program, a pipeline program hosted by the CUNY School of Medicine. This program embodied the mission of the MAA program, which is to deliver STEM learning opportunities to its students. Being accepted into the mentorship program gave me the opportunity to learn about the rigor of STEM career fields and allowed me to explore my STEM interests in terms of pursuing a profession in the sciences. Because of my acceptance to the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education B.S./M.D. program, I am eternally grateful for the experiences and influences MAA has raised me with. Having been a volunteer teacher’s aide at MAA throughout my high school years, I have personally seen the impact that STEM learning opportunities can have on both young students and older students who are looking to find the right post-secondary path for them. Because of the impact the MAA program had on me, I am honored to be able to help achieve the MAA’s mission of delivering the same STEM learning opportunities that I have had. 

Question: What advice do you want to give to the students, particularly underserved minorities?

Answer: My advice to students of underserved socioeconomic backgrounds is to get yourself out there. You cannot always predict when certain opportunities will be given to you, so it is important to act on any given chance that can propel you, whether academically or in other extracurricular. It is possible to gain recognition for accomplishments outside of academics; however, it is up to you to decide if you want to pursue them. Staying committed to activities you are involved in is worthwhile because it could lead to greater opportunities in your future. As students, you can pursue your interests and get a head start by joining mentorship programs, finding internship opportunities, and finding volunteer and employment opportunities. This is something I have done, and I am confident that it has given me an advantage over others I have had to compete against in order to gain opportunities that I have been granted. For older students, getting yourself out there also means that you should not be afraid to experiment with different interests of yours if you are unclear about what path you want to take in your post-secondary life. As long as you are being active about any ambiguity in your choices, you are doing something that pushes you forward. For students at any point in their academic lives, it is very crucial that you build and maintain yourself within a community of people with similar motivation and passion as yourself. Having a network of similar-minded people prevents you from falling behind to a position that leaves you not knowing how to get ahead. I have done this for myself, and it has been very beneficial to me, and it is something I credit for the opportunities that I have been granted. 

Violeta Escandon  (First-Year Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Student at the Georgia Institute of Technology  becoming one of the recipients of the prestigious A. James Clark Scholars Awards (JCSA). JCSA Program at Georgia Tech is dedicated to creating engineers of the future.