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NMSI Blog

Celebrating Students Who Are Out of This World

Today is International Youth Day, an annual celebration of the role young women and men play as essential partners in change. It’s a chance to raise awareness of the challenges and problems facing the world’s youth. Among those challenges is the lack of equal access to STEM education – a debilitating issue NMSI is seeking to resolve and reverse.
 
Amid that challenge, there are countless bright spots – students, teachers, administrators and other likeminded partners – who’ve been relentless in their efforts to improving student opportunities and achievement by advancing STEM teaching and learning. We’re saluting a few of them today.
 
We met one student in particular this summer who uses her passion for STEM as a platform to encourage and inspire other young people to pursue their dreams – even when their dreams are literally out of this world.
 
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Alyssa Carson’s set her sights on Mars when she was three years old. After watching a space-themed episode of the Backyardigans, the Louisiana native knew she wanted to be an astronaut.

Alyssa Carson and her dadMy dad knew a little bit about the moon landings from living through it, so he told me a little bit about that, but I was still really, really curious,” Carson said.

I just kept asking for pictures, videos, posters, anything I could get my little hands on about space. I started kind of doing what I consider studying Mars and everything about it.
 
Since then, she’s witnessed three space shuttle launches, attended countless space camps and academies, and became the first person to attend all three NASA space camps around the world (Turkey, Canada and Huntsville, AL). She’s also the first and only person to complete the NASA Passport Program, visiting all 14 NASA Visitors Centers in nine different states.
 
And oh yeah – she’s only 17.
 
In a way, her investment and interest in STEM has afforded her a roundtrip ticket across the globe.
 
“I’ve been to 16 countries so far,” Carson said. After she visits Iceland this summer for a geology training with European Space Agency scientists (in an all-female group and in the first class since the moon landings), that’ll make 17 countries – one for every year she’s walked on Earth’s gravity.
 
Carson’s passion led her to become the youngest graduate of the Advanced Possum Academy (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere), making her a citizen scientist and official astronaut trainee certified to go to space.
 
Going through all the different programs is kind of how I decided what I wanted my role to be when I become an astronaut, Carson said.

“I always wanted to be almost more of the explorer, doing the research and going out and taking it. I always like doing EVAs and being the mission specialist. That kind of geared me towards a more scientific route rather than a flying route.”
 
For Alyssa, the best training goes beyond the textbooks. Hands-on learning looked like airplanes simulating G-forces, demonstrations in decompression chambers and underwater survival training. It helped her apply what she was learning in her high school classrooms to real-world scenarios.
 
“I've been able to get all this hands-on experience, and it's just kind of built skill sets that I know I will have in the future,” Carson said. “For example, for the underwater survival training, I felt like that hands-on activity was super almost life-changing for me. Even though it was something I never thought I would use, I feel more secure now that I know how to do it. If I was driving and my car went into the river or something like that, I know that what I thought previously I would do is totally wrong. I just feel better gaining those skills.”
 
Carson’s currently eyeing an astrobiology program at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne as her next educational step toward achieving her dreams on the red planet. In the meantime, she’s one of seven ambassadors representing Mars One, a mission to establish a human colony on Mars in 2030.
 
When it comes to encouraging other young people to overcome adversity and break through the ceiling of possibility, Carson feels strongly about girls getting involved in STEM as a means of making positive and lasting impact on the world.
 
“Girls are really interested specifically in STEM at a younger age but as they get more towards high school, they start losing that interest,” Carson said. “A lot of it is fixing a bike or something. They're told, ‘Get dad or your brother to go fix it.’ It's letting them know that they can still have that curiosity to go and fix the bike or do that research.”
 
“There are thousands and thousands of career opportunities on this side of STEM. Showing them those careers and having them laid out for them can naturally let them see and read about it, see if they're genuinely interested. If they are, it's all about pursuing it, talking about it, starting locally and then seeing where you can go from there.”


What extraordinary young men and women do you know who’re overcoming challenges to make change? We’d love to hear!