Space industry leaders tout STEM education at OC Pathways Showcase

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Foothill High School senior John Gardner always wanted an electric-powered skateboard but thought the $1,500 price tag for each was too expensive. So the teen decided to build his own.

Gardner used computer-aided design programs to model the board, created the case for the battery using a 3D printer, and assembled the electronic components. Now he has a skateboard, which ended up costing less than a third of the retail price, that he can ride for up to an hour on a single charge.

Gardner, a student in the Foothill Engineering and Technology Pathway, demonstrated his skateboard Wednesday during the third annual OC Pathways Showcase at the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin.

He was among dozens of students from middle schools, high schools and community colleges across Orange County exhibiting projects and discussing how pathway programs are helping train them for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

“This is really very valuable work experience I’m earning before I even start college,” he said.

Based on the theme “How Might We … ,” this year’s showcase also featured speakers including Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, Tim Buzza, vice president of launch for Virgin Orbit, Orange County Superintendent Al Mijares, Saddleback College President Gregory Anderson and OCDE Chief Academic Officer Jeff Hittenberger.

Led by OCDE and Saddleback College, OC Pathways connects educators and industry leaders to prepare students for high-demand, high-skill and high-wage careers.

The initiative, funded in 2014 through a grant from the state Department of Education, now includes 14 school districts and nine community colleges, along with scores of businesses and community groups. These partners develop coursework and work-based learning opportunities that combine rigorous academics with career preparation in the target sectors of health care/biotechnology, engineering/advanced manufacturing and information technology/digital media.

Shotwell touched on her background and shared some of SpaceX’s recent milestones during a keynote presentation that began with a stirring video of her company’s reusable rocket flawlessly touching down on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean.

When the Falcon 9 booster stuck its vertical landing in April 2016, it marked a first for the industry, generating headlines around the world. But Shotwell shared another video that showed SpaceX’s first attempt ending in a fiery explosion.

“So, people can’t believe that I show that video,” she said. “From my perspective, that was a huge win. … That ship is out in the middle of the ocean, and the first time we attempted to land the rocket, we hit the ship. We hit it. It was such a victory.”

Shotwell said the company has since completed 17 successful landings since, driving home the point that most worthwhile endeavors require some degree of trial and error.

Afterward, she and Buzza fielded questions from three students enrolled in local STEM pathway programs.

Noah Glaser of Canyon High School in Anaheim, Erika Vazquez of Santiago Canyon College and Javier Renteria of Estancia High School and Coastline ROP in Costa Mesa — their stories are featured in the video below — asked about personal motivators, career pathways, obstacles for women in STEM fields and coping with failure.

“When faced with something really difficult, like the rocket failure, I find the best way forward is basically put your head down and power through and do work,” Shotwell said. “Basically, figure out a path to fix what just happened, and just focus on fixing it every day.”

“I think failure is interesting,” Buzza added, “because, first of all, if you fail you probably put yourself out there more than most people will, and that’s an important thing to know about yourself.”

The two were also asked if they had any secrets to their career successes.

“I listen really hard to people, and that’s the best way to find solutions from my perspective,” Shotwell said.

“For me at least, for a long time, I was just motivated to study hard and get good grades,” Buzza said. “And then there was a turning point, probably the third year of college, where I realized, Oh my god, this is actually about learning.”

Several students at the showcase said hearing personal experiences from the SpaceX and Virgin Orbit executives showed them how the skills they’re learning today can translate into their future careers.

Emilee Carr, a senior at Esperanza High in the Placentia-Unified School District, hopes to become a clinical geneticist. As part of Esperanza’s Medical Sciences Academy, Carr has already completed 120 hours in medical internships.

“I’m learning so much more than I could ever learn in a classroom alone,” she said. “It’s a really phenomenal pathway program.”