As Maria Caballero looked out at the 140 middle school students in the Doré Theatre on Thursday, she saw herself.
“I was nine years old before I spoke English. I came from a very poor family. My mom never learned English. My Dad never went past sixth grade,” she said.
As field workers, Maria’s parents moved the family around a lot before settling in Wasco. She, herself, has worked the fields.
But Maria’s story has a twist – today she helps design spacecraft for NASA. After attending CSUB for three years, Maria transferred to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for a degree in aeronautical engineering. She has worked for NASA for 14 years and is based at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base near Mojave.
Talking to participants of the NASA Summer of Innovation Rocketry Camp on Thursday, Maria said they should shoot for the moon when dreaming of their future.
“You guys have beautiful brains,” she told them. “You need to fill your dreams. And you can.”
Many of the students in the audience shared a similar background. They were chosen from the largely Hispanic Lamont School District in an effort to reach underrepresented minority youth and encourage them to enter the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
The NASA camp was a collaborative project between CSUB and the school district, which worked together to receive a $32,500 grant from the Aerospace, Education Research and Operations (AERO)-Institute partnering with NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. The students spent two weeks doing hands-on activities, including building, testing and launching model rockets. An additional partner in the project was Taft College, which provided $4,000 in specialized scientific rocket building supplies.
Thursday’s event at CSUB was the culmination of the camp, and included water bottle rocket launches, tours of Taft College’s STEM Mobile Lab, tours of the CSUB campus, and a poster display by the students. The afternoon capped off with launching the model rockets built by the students at the AYSO soccer fields.
The camp was taught by a mix of teachers from Lamont School District, CSUB students who are training to become teachers, and CSUB faculty – using curriculum provided by NASA. The teachers said they don’t have much time for these kinds of hands-on activities during the regular school year.
“When you put a lot more emphasis on activities, they don’t even realize they’re learning,” said Miguel Carrillo, who teaches sixth grade in Lamont. “I would say that before this program, about less than five percent of the students were interested in science. Now, after today, about half are authentically interested.”
Maria Caballero said the presentation was her first public speaking engagement – and she now hopes to do more to inspire youth. The slide that got the most ooohs and aaahs was a picture of an SR-71 Blackbird – an aircraft developed by NASA that was featured in the movie “Transformers 2.”
“Oh, you guys recognize that one,” Maria said to the students. “Well, if you come to work for NASA, you’ll get to design things like this.”
For more pictures of the NASA Summer of Innovation Rocketry Camp at CSUB, visit CSUB’s Facebook photo gallery.