Two CFCC students design Mars rover as part of NASA Aerospace Scholars Program

Robyn Howell and Deb Hewitt pose with their certificates after completing the 2014 National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program.

Robyn Howell and Deb Hewitt pose with their certificates after completing the 2014 National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program.















by Sara Gurkin

Cape Fear Community College students Deb Hewitt and Robyn Howell recently returned from a highly anticipated trip to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama. Both Hewitt and Howell were among a select group of students chosen to participate in the National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program (NCAS) which lead to a visit to NASA from February 26 – March 1.

The NCAS program is an opportunity for community college students to learn more about what NASA does and how to develop a future in space exploration. These selected students explore the exciting possibilities of careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by engaging in an online and hands-on NASA based team experiences.

Hewitt and Howell were two of the 40 community college students who qualified for the program nationwide. They were recognized by their innovative work by designing a Mars Rover Robotic Field Geologist Vehicle at CFCC. The objective of the Mars Rover project was to learn about ancient water and climate on Mars. As Aerospace Scholars, they were also required to complete a series of interactive web-based activities.

The MSFC is NASA’s largest center for engineering and the development of launch vehicles, spacecraft and scientific instruments. During their time in Alabama, the CFCC students had the opportunity to meet NASA engineers, get a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA, and participate in an on-site team project. The challenge consisted of hypothetically competing for a contract with NASA, where the teams were responsible for representing a company that specialized in making robotic rovers.

The competition was divided into two phases – showcasing rover performance on a terrain course while picking up rocks and fixing problems to improve the rover after the performance. After all the demonstrations, the teams gave a final presentation to convince the judges for the hypothetical contract offer. While neither Howell nor Hewitt were on the winning team, they were happy with their team’s performance, which was a fast-paced race against a tight deadline.

“We literally hit the ground running for 60 hours,” said Hewitt.

While Hewitt and Howell spent most of their time working on the team challenge, they also got to meet and listen to NASA engineers who have been working directly on future missions to Mars with new rockets. They also got to tour the Redstone Arsenal Base, where rockets are manufactured, astronauts are trained and space homes are made.

Howell attributes her success to the programs and professors at CFCC.

“Cape Fear Community College has helped me to be able to power through my own doubts and insecurities by encouraging me to not be afraid to excel,” she said. “My confidence has increased beyond what I believed was possible since attending Cape Fear, and the promise of success with meeting their requirements has played a big role in my preparation to complete the NCAS program.”

Reflecting on her three days in Alabama, Howell gained a deeper appreciation for STEM studies. Now planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in geology, she has been inspired by the trip. “I now have a better idea of how working together with other fields in science brings us all one step closer to achieving what once was considered unimaginable. I also earned more respect for my geologic field,” she said.

Both Howell and Hewitt agree that their experience with NASA would not have been possible without the encouragement from CFCC instructor Phil Garwood, nicknamed “Dr. Rocks,” who encouraged them to apply.

As a returning student to CFCC after a 30-year absence from academia, Hewitt had her doubts about getting accepted to the NCAS program but was thrilled to hear the good news. “I have been a rock hound for many years and this sounded like an opportunity that would really be great. I was surprised that my application was accepted then overjoyed that I was one of the recipients for a slot in the actual program,” Hewitt said. “This was an experience that I would never have even attempted if not for the push from Mr. Garwood. It was not something even on my radar.”

Howell also had hesitations about entering the program, but was reassured after receiving encouragement from Garwood.

“The genuine excitement and faith Mr. Garwood showed me that afternoon pushed me out of my doubt and reminded me that I can do this. The instructors at CFCC are the biggest reasons I felt prepared,” Howell said.

Cape Fear Community College is one of the only community colleges in the nation to that had four students accepted into the NCAS program and two who attended. Hewitt and Howell definitely have something to be proud of, and are thankful for the experience. Both CFCC students are back with their framed NCAS program certificates and show them off proudly. “This was a highlight of my scholastic career,” exclaimed Hewitt.

CFCC Mars rover

The prototype Mars rover vehicle designed by CFCC students Robyn Howell and Deb Hewitt.