Ten Florida Keys Community College students triumphantly returned to campus last week after participating in the NASA Engineering Challenges at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL.  The three-day event was the culmination of a semester-long program created to engage community college students with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational activities and to inspire further interest and academic pursuits in these fast-growing fields.  The two FKCC teams, entitled “TechKeys” and “RocketTrees,” brought home two gold medals, two silver medals, and one bronze medals from the competition.  Astronaut John Blaha presented Team TechKeys with the top trophy for overall performance—an honor that was shared with a team from Hillsborough Community College.

The event, held in NASA’s Visitors Complex, was comprised of three challenges: a high-altitude balloon experiment, a robotic vehicle mission, and a hydro-powered rocket launch.  Both FKCC teams worked together to win the high-altitude balloon experiment, which called for the students to elevate a package 100,000 feet to test the ability of a special bacteria to reduce carbon dioxide in the environment.

FKCC’s TechKeys placed second and RocketTrees placed third in the Robotic Vehicle Mission.  In this challenge, the teams built a robotic vehicle and remotely navigated it through a simulated Mars obstacle course from a separate control room via cameras and computers.   The third event, a hydro-powered rocket launch, called for each team to build a rudimentary rocket and chart its functionality at various pressure levels. Team RocketTrees took the gold medal and Team TechKeys took the silver in this final challenge.

“This is one of the best opportunities I’ve seen available for our students,” said Dawn Ellis, FKCC computer science instructor and advisor for FKCC’s NASA Engineering Challenges teams for the past two years.  “All of the students were interested in STEM fields.  This experience showed them how research, experimentation, and collaboration can apply to a variety of career paths, including highly-sophisticated industries like space exploration.”

FKCC was one of only three colleges in Florida to receive a $134,000 grant from the Florida Space Grant Consortium to support this program for two years.  The grant provides $5,000 scholarships to the participating students.  Since January, they worked through a series of experiments and challenge projects in preparation for the event at the Kennedy Space Center.  All of these students are now eligible for internships at NASA so long as they are enrolled in a Florida college or university.