St. Clair County Community College (SC4) alumnus Robert Hilgendorf had his sights set on graduation in his last semester at SC4 when a unique opportunity presented itself. In October 2020, he saw a campus announcement to students about the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program.
“Every time I logged in I saw the posting, I finally decided to research it,” said Hilgendorf. “Once I realized it not only was an opportunity to learn more about NASA but also work on developing my talents, I applied.”
Hilgendorf’s application was accepted and he participated in a five-week online NCAS course where he learned about the history of NASA and gained insight into future NASA initiatives. As part of the experience he attended meetings with NASA engineers and experts on topics ranging from mission launches to rover landings. “It was an eye-opening experience into how NASA’s work has impacted our life here on Earth,” continued Hilgendorf.
His favorite part of the course included details about the Artemis mission, which will return a United States crew to the Moon and eventually Mars. Hilgendorf stated, “It was amazing to see all the STEM-related disciplines required to develop and plan the mission.”
In March 2021, Hilgendorf was excited to learn that based upon his participation in the course and the final paper he submitted, he was selected to participate in a nine-day NASA virtual experience.
According to Hilgendorf, the virtual experience continued on from where the course left off. His daily calendar included speakers, intern panels, hangouts with engineers and mission meetings. Participants were divided into teams that were tasked with developing a successful mission to the Moon or Mars. Teams were responsible for defining missing goals and objectives; maintaining a balanced budget, projecting launch schedules; and specifying all systems, instruments and scientific payloads required.
Hilgendorf put his engineering degree to use as a systems engineer — in charge of rocket, surface mobility and entry/descent/landing selections. His team presented a successful mission to a panel of NASA judges.
”This experience is an invaluable resource for anyone unsure about how to reach their goals, wondering which STEM field to choose, or just not sure they can do it,” Hilgendorf said. “The program not only provides an incredible sense of accomplishment but helps develop the skills employers are looking for. I would definitely recommend it to others.”
The NCAS program provides experience, knowledge and networking opportunities that can become a foundation for a student’s future and career. NASA has an internship program that places a high value on applicants who’ve completed the NCAS program.
“When opportunities come your way, you must jump on them, and this is one you shouldn’t let pass by,” said Hilgendorf, who earned an Associate of Arts and Science in engineering technology-electronics in May 2021. “The NASA experience helped me solidify my education plans moving forward. Education is so important and truly opens doorways that would never become available without it.”
He is now planning to work on a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, thanks to his NCAS experience and the instructors at SC4.
”I cannot think of one single course or instructor at SC4 that didn’t help prepare me in one way for this program.” he said, noting that the skills gained in engineering technology, research, paper writing, public speaking, English, math, group projects and science labs all played a role in preparing him for the NASA experience and for his future career. “A special thanks to Instructor Dan Bishop and Professor Don Reuba, who took the time to write recommendation letters to apply to the NCAS program.”
If you are interested in learning more about STEM programs at SC4, visit sc4.edu/programs.
For more information on the aerospace scholars program, visit go.nasa.gov/ncas.