Australian students visit NASA mission control as part of STEM program

Sarah Mullins, a student at Queenwood, went to NASA.
Sarah Mullins, a student at Queenwood, went to NASA. Photo: Ben Rushton

Sarah Mullins was sitting in science class when her ears pricked up. An opportunity to visit NASA Mission control was available, and she could not apply quickly enough to be part of the program.

Upon hearing of her successful application, Sarah, 16, said that she felt "really, really excited about the opportunity" especially with the fierce competition for places across the country. Some of her Queenwood classmates missed out.

Sarah, along with 24 girls from other NSW schools, has now returned from NASA, inspired to pursue her passion for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Female students from Australia inside the space shuttle at NASA's Houston Association for Space and Science Education.
Female students from Australia inside the space shuttle at NASA's Houston Association for Space and Science Education. Photo: Supplied

The two-week trip in December to the Houston Association for Space and Science Education included VIP tours of the NASA Mission Control facilities and first-hand access to space technology workshops as well as meetings with several astronauts.

The trip was arranged by the Alliance of Girls' Schools Australasia (AGSA) and the Houston facility's Australian partner, iVicon.

The Houston facility says that it aims to create "positive learning experiences that raise students' and educators' expectations of success; foster a long-term interest in mathematics, science, teamwork, creativity, and technology; and encourages them to pursue their dreams".

Sarah, who is doing the International Baccalaureate and is in now year 12, was grateful for her parents' support, both with her interest in engineering and paying for her  trip to NASA. 

At NASA the students dined with Dr Leroy Chiao – an astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station Expedition 10 – who is now the Houston facility's special adviser.

"It was also great to see the grey floors and everyone working on the space pods," Ms Mullins said.

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Another student who attended the exchange program was Pamela Di Chiara. The Santa Sabina College student said that the "program exceeded my expectations as I not only was able to learn about space but also learned life-long lessons such as teamwork, curiosity and having a great dream and believing in it."

Both students also talked about their passion for science and engineering and how the space camp had given them an opportunity to succeed and not be limited by their gender.

"Girls can do whatever boys can do," Sarah said.

Pamela said: "I wanted to go to space camp as I have always have had a passion for science, space and engineering and thus I wanted to explore into those disciplines."

STEM has traditionally been viewed as a male domain, with young women less actively encouraged to go into related fields.

Sarah is studying higher maths, physics, Latin, French, geography and literature.

"One in 15 girls in my class are looking to do engineering," Sarah said.

AGSA Communications Director Teva Smith highlighted the the aim of the "trip was to involve the girls in an unforgettable STEM related program that stepped beyond the traditional school subjects and demonstrate the incredible and unique future opportunities in science and engineering."

The NASA space camp international study program ,which took nearly a year's worth of preparation, also had student groups from Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.