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Innovative Interns from AAAS’s Entry Point! Program Visit U.S. Capitol
When Jonathan Bidwell, a computer & systems engineering senior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, describes to a layperson the technology he’s hoping to perfect in the future, it sounds like something out of a science fiction blockbuster. But it’s quite real and Bidwell is well on his way to realizing his goals.
To help him get there, Bidwell is interning this summer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Langley Research Center in Virginia, working among leading pioneers in the engineering and applied sciences fields. He was able to secure this internship through the highly competitive AAAS ENTRY POINT! program, designed to assist university students with disabilities who are studying science, engineering, mathematics and computer science.
“When AAAS suggested that it wouldn’t be a problem to get an internship at IBM, Google, or NASA, I almost didn’t believe it,” said Bidwell, who is narcoleptic. “I was ecstatic to hear back from three NASA centers as a result of applying to ENTRY POINT!”
Bidwell was one of a dozen ENTRY POINT! interns who toured the U.S. Capitol on 25 July as part of an annual program organized by AAAS. The students were wrapping up their summer internships at several NASA locations—the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the Langley Research Center, and the headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Many had never been to the nation’s capital before, nor had they had an opportunity to meet each other. This trip, followed by a reception at AAAS, gave everyone an opportunity to do both.
The NASA interns met AAAS staff members in front of the U.S. Capitol, where they were taken on a guided tour of one of the most symbolically important buildings in the world. For half a day the students visited committee rooms, chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, congressional offices and the Rotunda gallery of paintings and sculptures depicting significant people and events in the nation's history. They ate lunch among members of the U.S. Congress and staff in the food court of the Longworth House Office Building.
For Bidwell, working at NASA has provided an opportunity to exchange ideas with those who share the common goal of making a positive impact on society. His own impacts on society will include contributing to advances in technologies which will dramatically increase the speed and efficiency at which humans are capable of learning. He believes that designing systems to display concepts to students as they interact with their environment in and out of school would represent a highly individualized and accelerated path to learning, one that appeals to human curiosity and invention.
“I’m hoping to create smart technology that takes a different look at learning by making connections between the real world and what people are learning in school,” Bidwell said in an interview after the visit. He explained that such technology would build upon our existing experiences and interactions with the world by superimposing information over a person’s regular vision. “For instance, force vectors may be displayed over a moving vehicle as a student gazes out the window of a school bus in preparation for a physics exam that afternoon.”
Currently, such technology, called Augmented Reality, is incredibly expensive and used mainly for research. An AR system augments the real scene viewed by the user with a virtual scene generated by the computer, so that the user cannot tell the difference between the real world and the virtual augmentation of it. The display technology to be used with an AR system will be head-mounted devices—imagine Keanu Reeves in The Matrix—which would merge the real world and the virtual augmentation of it. An AR system currently being used commonly appears in military airplane cockpits, where the optical merging of the two images is done on the cockpit window.
Angelique Dorazio-Sanders, ENTRY POINT! senior project coordinator, said that the U.S. Capitol trip gives students a chance to see the core of this city and to learn a little bit more about the political process, not to mention the visit to AAAS to meet Entry Point! and other AAAS staff.
“This was the first year we've had interns from three NASA sites on this trip,” Dorazio-Sanders said. “For me, it was really nice to see them meet each other and discuss their work. Since most of them are in similar fields, this may not be the first time their paths will cross, so they get to start building their networks now.”
For the first time this year, AAAS arranged meetings for the interns with their respective Congressional representatives’ offices. After these individual meetings, the group met with Rachel Jagoda-Brunette, the legislative assistant on the Research Subcommittee of the U.S. House Science Committee. Jagoda-Brunette described the committee’s work and learned from the students about the ENTRY POINT! program, their internship experiences and their studies.
Chris Wells, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center intern and a fourth-year doctoral student at the State University of New York at Albany studying inorganic and physical chemistry, spoke to Jagoda-Brunette at length about his work in using computational chemistry in nanoscience research.
For Wells, who was born visually impaired and deaf, the summer ENTRY POINT! internship has not only been a great professional experience, but also a unique life experience, as this is longest time he’s been away from home and virtually independent.
“I discovered that I could successfully function outside my traditional boundaries as long as I could develop a strong support system in where I am right now,” Wells said in an email. “The work with Goddard Space Flight Center has enabled me to understand government research, and it has restored my power of innovation, which is a powerful element for a scientist in his/her career.”
ENTRY POINT! partners in the public and private sectors are located all around the U.S. The challenge, especially for a student with disabilities, of relocating to a different part of the country for 10 weeks is a significant part of the ENTRY POINT! experience, said Virginia Stern, director of the AAAS Project on Science, Technology and Disability.
Stern partnered with NASA in 1996 for the first year of the program, called Achieving Competence in Computing, Engineering, and Space Science (ACCESS). Besides long-time partner NASA, participating organizations have included IBM, Merck, the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and Google. These organizations offer competitive stipends, assistive technology, mentorship, and sometimes travel and housing assistance to the students.
AAAS also stays very involved in each internship and offers extensive support to the students. For instance, Dorazio-Sanders and Laureen Summers, AAAS project manager of the NASA ACCESS program and founder of the U.S. Capitol tour program, visited each student in the ENTRY POINT! program at his or her internship location around the country to make sure things were going well and to make personal contact with the students and their internship coordinators.
To date, 369 students with disabilities have completed internships through the ten-year-old ENTRY POINT! program and many have gone on to tackle careers that might have been closed to them in decades past.
The bottom line, according to Bidwell, is that “the more programs like ENTRY POINT! that offer opportunities for incredible real-life applications to science and technology, the more motivation and context there is for learning and trying really hard in school.
“AAAS is a fantastic way of creating that spark because it allows students to be in positions where they are on the cutting edge of research and contributing to that research.”
14 August 2006