High school junior Emily Schlieff was surfing the Internet in search of a summer job at the encouragement of her mom.
But she isn’t spending this summer working at a restaurant or clothing store. Instead she found an opportunity that could change the trajectory of her life.
Two hours before applications were due, Schlieff stumbled on the WISH project, NASA’s Women in STEM High School Aerospace Scholars project.
Schlieff didn’t waste any time.
“I wrote two essays and filled out all the paperwork in the two hours before the deadline,” said the daughter of Kathi and Jeff Schlieff of Coon Rapids.
She was accepted into the program. What followed were months of interactive, online lessons focused on space exploration, which she juggled with her course load at Anoka High School.
The online learning modules were part of an evaluation to narrow the field to 84 girls who would be chosen for a week-long camp at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
“My favorite part were the online forums,” Schlieff said. “I got to meet a lot of girls and realized there are a lot of people out there who are interested in the same things I am.”
She was working on a high school English project when the e-mail from NASA arrived. Schlieff was the lone student from Minnesota chosen to take part in the program that encourages women to pursue science and technology, engineering and mathematics degrees and exposes them to the real-world applications of STEM careers at NASA.
“I’m not sure how or why, but I’ve always known I wanted to be an astronaut,” she said.
Her older sister Molly had taken part in a similar study program in Washington, D.C., which focused on environmental sciences.
“I was excited to be able to do something just like that, only with my interests,” Schlieff said.
From June 24 to 29 she was one of a group of 40 who spent the week planning a simulated mission to Mars, experiencing life as an engineer or a scientist working for NASA. She was one of 10 members of “Team Sojourn” which focused on putting together the plan of what astronauts would do once they reached Mars.
The girls worked on their plans from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days, operating within the confines of a fictitious budget. They interviewed scientists and engineers, presenting their findings to a panel of NASA personnel at the end of the week.
“WISH gives some of our brightest future innovators a chance to experience some of the exciting challenges that NASA engineers and scientists face on a daily basis,” said Ellen Ochoa, deputy director of the Johnson Space Center and four-time space shuttle astronaut. “It shows the young women that there are a variety of opportunities for them in technical fields.”
Schlieff was also selected to share her experience at the program’s closing ceremony.
“I went into it thinking I wanted to be an astronaut,” said Schlieff. “But now there are so many other things I want to do. And be an astronaut too.”
Stories from NASA personnel about working on Mars rovers or building space suits definitely got her attention.
“It sounded like they were having so much fun doing their jobs,” she said.
Every day the girls attended a lunch and learn session where they got to know different people who work at NASA. They had tours of the space center and saw inside Mission Control.
A highlight of the week was hearing astronaut Shannon Walker talk about long duration space travel.
“She went up with the Russians and spent six months in space,” said Schlieff. “She tried out (to be an astronaut) for 14 years and finally made it. She really made us think if we persevere we can make our dreams come true.”
Schlieff will be a senior at Anoka High School this fall. She participates in concert choir, band and orchestra and is a member of the National Honor Society. She will be an officer with the Key Club, an organization that promotes community service among high school students. She is also a member of the rally crew for freshman orientation and a theater tech, running the sound board for school productions.
Outside of school she loves to volunteer and currently donates her time to an organization called Store to Door, taking grocery orders from seniors over the phone.
The week she spent in Houston has already affected her future plans. She’s juggling her class schedule to fit in calculus and after discounting the idea of studying engineering, she has changed her mind.
While she says she doesn’t have any specific colleges in mind, she will be looking into those who are accredited with NASA’s Cooperative Education Program. This is a common stepping stone for many young NASA personnel.
“This has really opened my eyes to the kind of things I could do,” said Schlieff. “The program is important because women are the minority in the STEM fields. It shows us we can do it.”
Mandy Moran Froemming is at firstname.lastname@example.org