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600 Minnesota youth meet NASA engineers through 4-H

Rich Rieber, NASA engineer, presented at his computer with his smiling baby on his lap.
NASA engineers like Rich Rieber are working at home now too, as 4-H youth learning about his career path discovered.

Chance to have a conversation about dream careers was a big draw, says Michael Compton, director of Minnesota 4-H STEM

Every year, Minnesota 4-H offers an Engineering Design Challenge. This year, the challenge theme is space exploration, Mission to Mars. “We were searching for what the 2020 theme would be when we discovered that this is a huge year for NASA with the launch of their next rover, Perseverance,” says Michael Compton, director of Minnesota 4-H STEM. 

The project always challenges 4-H youth to learn critical thinking, creativity, innovation and problem solving—and importantly—the love of learning.

The STEM team wanted to connect this year’s fun challenge to careers and real life. Compton reached out to a few people at NASA, and luckily enough, some answered. He was able to set up three different, exclusive sessions with scientists that work on the NASA rover and its mission. 

Sessions featured Farah Alibay, a flight system engineer; Rich Rieber, lead mobility systems engineer; and Hallie Abarca, operations and systems engineer. They have all worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

STEM careers can be down to Earth

Online sessions engaged youth in exploring the world of NASA. “The goal of connecting these youth with these professionals is to show them that there are so many options and careers within STEM,” says Compton. “We want them to imagine themselves in those roles.” 

laptop screen showing NASA engineer in photo as an intern and as engineer, Caption reads "From Bright-Eyed Intern to Real-Life Engineer"
Farah Alibay's presentation to 4-H youth covered her educational and career paths, which were driven by her curiosity.

Each presenter has had a different career path. Alibay says, “Not everyone at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a Ph.D. [she does]; this was just the route for me. I really like pushing the state of the art learning to something new, and contributing to the scientific community.” 

Other sessions featured Rich Rieber, the lead mobility systems engineer for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Mars-2020 rover; and Hallie Abarca, operations and systems engineer who has remotely driven the rover and operated photography functions. 

Alibay spoke to youth about how curiosity was a constant driving factor for her: “I always looked for where my curiosity and passion were, and it makes it a lot easier to study those topics and work long hours when you have to, when you're passionate about it.”

STEM careers could involve many topics beyond engineering, such as computer programming, creative arts, architecture and even farming equipment.

Alibay discussed many options and college degree paths. She said that about a third of her colleagues have an undergraduate degree, about a third have a master's degree and a third have a doctoral degree. Academic goals vary depending on career goals and many other individual needs and interests.

Bringing the mission back home

This opportunity for youth to connect with professionals working at NASA was a dream for some. Youth took home some great ideas to use for this year’s Engineering Design Challenge Mission to Mars project, but the opportunity also piqued a curiosity in other youth to participate. 

mission to mars icon

Some of the youth that participated gave feedback as to what an experience they had with the exclusive conversations. “It takes a really long time to design, build, test, and launch a mission to Mars and that it takes a really long time to get to Mars,” agree two participants named Maddy and Abby.

Evan, Isaac and Nolan Meyer from Riptide Spies 4-H Club in South St Louis County write, “We were excited to hear more about what it is like to work on a NASA mission, and hear more about what it is like to work behind the scenes.”

Find information on upcoming opportunities at Minnesota 4-H STEM


Catie Schmidt, Extension 4-H communications intern

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