Fond du Lac college students work with NASA scientistsWhen Travis Blacketter enrolled in geographical informational systems (GIS) studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, the 36-year-old wildland fire fighter had no idea it would lead to a six-week internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility in Alabama.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
When Travis Blacketter enrolled in geographical informational systems (GIS) studies at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, the 36-year-old wildland fire fighter had no idea it would lead to a six-week internship at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facility in Alabama.
“I’ve been a complete blue collar worker my whole life,” Blacketter said. “Marine Corps, wildland fire … nothing like this.”
In his six weeks at the NASA Earth Science facility in Huntsville, Ala., however, Blacketter was all about technology and science, working with fellow students and mentor scientists to build a computer lab capable of handling their environmental modeling and research on the impact of land cover change on the St. Louis River watershed.
Blacketter spoke following a ceremony Friday morning at FDLTCC welcoming three of the NASA scientists and celebrating the partnership the two organizations have fostered since 2011 when FDLTCC was one of only four colleges in the United States to be awarded the NASA grant, which provided some $150,000 a year for up to three years to enhance studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM fields).
FDLTCC geospatial technologies instructor Elizabeth Jones said the program had two goals: To enhance the current curriculum at FDLTCC with NASA-related scientific exploration and second, to create new curriculum at the school.
Although the students and their teachers worked on the project throughout the school year, the summer internships have been the highlight, Jones said.
“You have community college students who were selected to participate in an internship with NASA scientists,” she said. “We are bringing research opportunities to a community college level, which is almost unheard of. It’s really exciting for us and our students.”
The first summer, three FDLTCC students went to Huntsville. After participating in the FDLTCC computer modeling internship, one of those original students was picked up for an internship with a NASA jet-propulsion lab.
“She worked with Mars data when they got Rover over there,” Jones said. “This opportunity has definitely changed lives.”
This past summer, five students and one grad student took part in the internship in Huntsville, including Blacketter, who is studying GIS and planning to become a wildland fire manager.
Blacketter explained that the computer modeling took into account information from satellites, geological studies of the area, vegetation models and more.
“Pretty much everything you can think of that would encompass a river and its surroundings: soil, water, elevation, vegetation, you name it,” he said.
NASA senior research scientist Dr. Mohammad Al-Hamdan put it in more scientific terms, noting that the NASA scientists worked with the FDLTCC students and faculty training them “in the use of NASA remotely sensed environmental data — yes, satellites — and geographical information systems in order to apply such data sets as inputs to watershed and water quality models to study the effects of land cover, land use change and climate change on the water quality and quantity in the St. Louis River watershed.”
Jones explained that the study of the river and its watershed was a perfect fit for the tribal and community college. The river is the second largest tributary to Lake Superior, so it impacts the health of the Great Lake, plus it’s an important wild rice habitat.
“We looked at land use change — things like urbanization, for example — and how it is impacting the health of the watershed.”
Jones said this will be the final year for the grant funding the study; however, she is hopeful the school’s relationship with NASA will continue.
In fact, FDLTCC instructor Courtney Kowalczak already has a project in mind.
“We have a set of STEM camps now … that we want to expand to climate change specifically,” she said, noting the camps study wild rice and other traditional resources used by the Ojibwe culture.
It’s a blend of science and culture that should appeal to a number of FDLTCC students.
That’s what the NASA applied science team is all about — taking NASA science and making it something useful, something people and governments large and small can use when they make decisions.
Blacketter’s advice to any future FDLTCC students if the college gets approval for a second grant?
“Take advantage of this program,” he said. “It’s a remarkable opportunity for anyone, whether you’re highly skilled in a STEM field or just getting started. Everyone will get something from this.”
Al-Hamdan also offered words of encouragement.
“The hope is such training will give the students confidence to go into STEM programs in their colleges, either as undergrad programs or graduated studies,” Al-Hamdan said. “We need to make sure we train and position our young students to become our future scientists.