A group of Orange County high school and college students spent a day this week at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory watching a test drive of a replica of the Mars Curiosity Rover, examining the Mission Control Center, and exploring an assembly room used to build satellites and other space-bound gadgets.

The tour aimed to encourage students to pursue careers in space exploration by showing some of nation’s top engineers, analysts and scientists at work.

Thursday’s trip to the institute in Pasadena was the culmination of the Pathway to STEM, a program offered by OC Pathways and Saddleback College to teach students basic computer programming, app development, statistics and introduction to calculus. The goal of the program is to help grow the number of students pursuing careers in science, technology engineering and math, or STEM.

“This was such a great experience,” said Praneeth Depur, a recent graduate of Irvine High. He’ll attend Cal Poly Pomona this fall to study computer science.

“I got to see the working environment of people whose job is to explore the universe. Hopefully I can be a part of this one day,” he said.

Student tour Mission Control Center at NASA's JPL

Students tour Mission Control Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The tour included about a dozen students. Four were recent high school graduates, while the rest were Saddleback College students studying engineering.

Through Pathway to STEM, students participated in a series of free workshops over two months this spring at Saddleback College. The coursework was created by the college and OC Pathways, which is a collaborative lead by Orange County Department of Education that includes local school districts, colleges and universities, and regional businesses.

During the JPL tour, students saw technicians test the steering, upgrade software and work on other components of a full-scale replica of the Mars Curiosity Rover.

The tour included a visit to the Spacecraft Assembly Facility, a 10-story-high “clean room” engineers use to build parts for rockets, satellites, rovers and other equipment used in space exploration.

“At JPL, we welcome student visitors because we want them to see what what all we have to offer,” said David Seidel, manager of the lab’s education program. “For us, it’s a way to help recruit our next generation of workers.”

Students also visited Mission Control Center, the two-room station workers use to control dozens of spaceships and orbiters traversing the solar system.

Towards the end of the tour, students met with JPL employees and interns who spoke to them about the paths they took that helped them land at the prestigious institute. They told students that solid GPAs matter, but having plenty of passion, abundant curiosity and a strong work ethic are just as important.

Mark Weideman, a recent graduate of Mission Viejo High, said the JPL field trip only strengthened his decision to choose a STEM career.

“The most important thing I learned today is that space is really cool,” said the student, who will enroll at Saddleback College this fall. “I met a lot of people today who have a passion for their job. For a student like myself, that’s very inspirational.”