Eight high school students from Santa Ana have the right stuff for summer JPL internship

In a scene reminiscent of “The Right Stuff,” a select group of young men and women donned JPL hats in a sun-splashed garden on Monday and contemplated an upcoming eight-week aerospace adventure that will take them far from home.

They aren’t exactly heading into space, but thanks to the countywide initiative known as OC Pathways and a handful of community partners, eight high schoolers from Santa Ana are on the precipice of a once-in-a-lifetime research experience as summer interns at NASA’s famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

“I think the first day is going to be different from anything I’ve done before,” said Luis Terrones of Saddleback High School. “So I’m excited, but I’m a little nervous as well.”

OpTerra Energy Services, one of the nation’s largest independent energy efficiency and renewable energy companies, has partnered with the Orange County Department of Education and its OC Pathways project to set up what are essentially paid positions within JPL’s SpaceSHIP internship program. The eight local students, selected through a rigorous application process toward the end of their junior years, will each receive $4,000 stipends as they work and learn at one of the world’s premier science and engineering research institutions.

“Out of more than 500,000 students in Orange County, you are the eight who have this opportunity, so that is very special,” Jeff Hittenberger, OCDE’s chief academic officer, told the students and their families during a special reception in a garden at Santa Ana High School on Monday afternoon. “We’ll be cheering for you.”

IMG_3360[2]Moments later, the young scholars were individually introduced and presented with their JPL caps. Along with Terrones, the group includes Rosa Yanes of Century High School; Paula Casian and Troyce Morales of Godinez Fundamental High School; Denise Garcia and An Ho of Saddleback High; and Minhanh Chau and Michelle Tran from Segerstrom High School.

Each will be assigned a JPL science or engineering mentor and asked to advance real projects through technical contributions. In fact, organizers stressed that the interns will not be job-shadowing or performing clerical tasks — they’ll be contributing to JPL’s objectives in an environment of high expectations.

From June 22 through Aug. 14, the students will be take part in seminars, tours, brown bag discussions, peer social events and other enrichment opportunities to learn more about JPL, careers and job skills, including resume-writing and delivering professional presentations.

To say this is a rare opportunity is an understatement. Though JPL will have about 600 interns at its facility this summer, only eight will be in high school, according to David Seidel, JPL’s deputy education director.

“We wouldn’t have selected them unless we were confident that they could succeed in this environment and they had the maturity and skills,” Seidel said, “and we’re going to make sure that they do succeed this summer.”

The aim is for students to walk away with a much-improved sense of their own abilities as well as the nature of work in a professional environment, the desired qualifications they’ll need to pursue in college, and later career opportunities.

Saddleback High’s Denise Garcia says she’s looking forward to getting an insider’s look at a mechanical engineering career, which she hopes to pursue after high school. And she knows this summer has another powerful benefit.

“I certainly think it’s going to give me an edge on my college applications.”