Over the past three years, Glen Willoughby has been presenting locally and offshore, on emerging technologies and how these are being adopted at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It was in this capacity that Willoughby found himself on a recent Saturday presenting - not to a group of industry colleagues - but nearly 200 high school students from across Auckland.
The students were attending the ‘Ytech - Walking on Mars’ at the Manukau Institute of Technology.
Willoughby starts by revealing the New Zealand connection of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory or JPL.
JPL’s first director, Dr William Pickering, was a Kiwi, and headed the space exploration laboratory for 22 years. JPL is owned by NASA and managed by California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Among it projects are the Mars Science Laboratory mission (which includes the Curiosity rover, Insight mission, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) and the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter.
At the Ytech - Walking on Mars event, Willoughby is joined by other speakers that included Dr Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, Vanessa Sorenson of Microsoft, Edwina Mistry of CreateOps and NZTech, and Tom Soderstrom, chief IT technology and innovation officer at NASA JPL.
Joining the forum through Skype, Soderstrom took the students on a tour of the mission control room and spacecraft build room at JPL in Pasadena, California.
Ytech - Walking on Mars, was created by Youth for Youth under the guidance of Edwina Mistry, founder of CreateOps and executive director, TechWomen at NZTech.
The programme stemmed from a meeting in April this year between Mistry and Willoughby, on how they can spur the interest of young Kiwis to work in STEM fields.
Mistry says the attendees came from 50 schools across Auckland and 40 per cent of them were female students.
“I wanted to bring some of these ideas to inspire school students to take up technology and science career,” says Willoughby. He called Soderstrom to run a session for the students.
Willoughby says the forum had instilled the following key message for students: “Technology and science careers are for everyone, it only takes persistence, hard work and following your passion – whatever that may be.”
He points to how technology can help solve some of the big challenges ahead for humanity - climate change, increase population, food shortage, pollution, and increase in disease prevalence.
“We have new tools to help us address these challenges, that can help us change the world for good.”
“The future is filled with amazing possibilities,” he told the students. “Be imaginative, follow your passion, although it may take time to find out what is it, and dare mighty things.”
Jenna Woolley, executive general manager, technology at Manukau Institute of Technology, says the programme delivers a lot of positive messages for young people.
“As someone who works in technology it’s easy to buy into the notion of inspiring more young people into this space,” says Woolley, who worked with the YTech members and provided technical support for the event.
“But as parent, this doesn’t become real until you see first-hand the impact of people like NanoGirl and how excited and enthusiastic your child becomes when they truly are inspired,” says Woolley, whose daughter, Addison, joined Dr Michelle Dickinson on stage.
“It’s really important to drive as much diversity as possible into the technology - and STEM space,” she says. “It’s really important to expose students to the possibilities in an engaging and hands on way. Looking around at the Ytech event, we got just that.”
MIT chief executive Gus Gilmore says the school was delighted to take part in the first ever live Skype tour of JPL, and support “the next generation of scientists”.
“It is important that we create more events like these that inspire, motivate and educate our youth about how technology is used in business and it’s not just about learning how to code,” says Mistry. “When students are excited by what they see, they then want to find out more about the pathways that lead to these opportunities and rethink about their subject choices in school, it helps them make informed decisions,” says Mistry.
Mistry is also the founder of ShadowTech, which organises female high school students to be mentored for a day by ICT professionals, and shown the range of interesting work in the sector.
During the lunch break, the students experienced the latest technologies like the Hololens with the team from Microsoft and Datacom.
Mistry says other groups that supported the project were NanoGirl Labs, ATEED and TechWomen NZ. Mistry says YTech is planning another event in February 2019, and is looking at bringing its programmes to other cities across New Zealand.
“The model they have created works,” says Mistry. “They would like to encourage more youth to create events that inspire and educate school students to make informed decisions on subject choices and get connected to industry at an early stage.”
Mistry shares some feedback from the students.
“The day was full of fun and inspiration,” says one student, Jaskiran Kaur Rahi. “I have taken away many messages from the event, the key message that I remembered was, ‘to live life with no regrets.
Max Dang Vu aptly sums up the impact of the project: “It was a once and a lifetime opportunity to have NASA in New Zealand and it excites me that this is not just for the movies, it’s possible to work in such an environment if we dare to believe.”
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