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  • Shawna Christenson

Taking Advantage of Opportunities-- Caeden Dooner (11th grade)

When I was in middle school, I didn’t care at all about space. Even though our school had an active aerospace class and a satellite team, my interests lay more in line with computer gaming and programming. Little did I know then that those two worlds would not only collide but be very complimentary in nature. It was only when I entered high school when I realized that I had missed out on fantastic opportunities that could potentially set me apart from my peers for college. My former middle school teacher really invested in me as well as other high school students who were lacking exposure to the aerospace content they had previously enjoyed.  Since then, I’ve learned that often we assume our passions will unfold in only one trajectory. But being open to more than one pathway is important, and students should be encouraged to broaden their horizons in order to really find out what it is that interests them. Younger students must take advantage of opportunities NOW in order to be ahead in the future, and if those opportunities don’t seem to exist, students should seek them out or create them.

It was only after my second year in high school that I realized I had missed out on some great experiences. While I thought my world would open up in high school, I realized it was actually much smaller.  My school, like most public schools,  did not offer any classes in my field of interest; in fact, my first year in high school, I didn't do anything related to computer engineering, and with a focus on International Baccalaureate schoolwork, it was difficult  to keep engineering in mind.  But, luckily, my same middle school teacher who had offered so many opportunities in my earlier years, helped me realize that it was up to me to take my future in my hands, and at the end of my sophomore year, I got back involved.   Students on the Wolverine CubeSat Development Team at my former school were now launching CubeSats, advocating in the state and nation’s capital on behalf of space policy,  and high school students like me were coming back to form a rover team.  While not directly computer engineering, I came to realize that almost any career is represented in aerospace, especially computer programming. Even though I felt intimidated at first, I accepted an invitation to join a select group of high schoolers to attend the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)  legislative blitz in DC. I ended up having a great time on that trip, and that was the moment I realized that I needed to continue to do more in order to separate myself from my peers. That year, I tried to focus more on doing aerospace activities.  By the end of summer before my Junior year, I had attended SmallSat, a conference in Logan, Utah, presented with a team on a space settlement design for Space Foundation where we were first in the nation, flew to Beijing to compete for Future Space Scholars Meet and  even began working on the biggest project of my life so far:  The AMARIS Lunar Rover. The AMARIS Lunar Rover is comprised of high school and middle school students, and the goal is to be the first middle/high school to build, launch, and land a lunar rover at Lacus Mortis. We began investigating the process by gathering information  from different aerospace companies at SmallSat. We created mission statements and preliminary designs for the rover. This long term project has afforded us other opportunities as well. Currently, I am the principal investigator for a proposal and experiment as part of Blue Origin and AIAA suborbital competition. Recently, the team and I submitted our proposal and are waiting to see if we are selected. If we are, we will be given $1000 to build and test our payload on a BlueOrigin rocket. Looking back, I realize that not taking advantage of every opportunity presented to me was limiting my personal growth as a student and a future engineer. These past few years have been extraordinary.   I didn't realize how much of an impact a hands-on, real-world  STEM program would have on me, and I didn’t realize the importance of connecting my work with industry. While it would be difficult to pursue my passion if not for the help of my teacher and mentor, I do know now that many opportunities exist all around us.  If they don’t, then make them yourself!  And don't be afraid to take opportunities even if they don't seem like they are related to what you want to do. Chances are, you will see connections the more involved you are.  When I think back on that middle school kid, just starting high school, I was an average student who figured I needed to wait to do big work; but with determination to set myself apart from others, I changed my entire outlook. I am setting myself apart, and even if I started a little late, I learned it’s never too late to challenge yourself to improve.

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