Innovator Jorge Perez: It Really Is Rocket Science

Jorge Perez’s oasis of excellence

How to engage students? Rocket science!

A collaboration between NASA and College of the Desert (COD) has successfully launched, thanks to Jorge Perez, assistant professor in math.

In March, the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program selected COD to participate in a pilot project called NASA On Campus. It is one of six community colleges serving minority students in the project, funded by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP).

“I felt proud to be one of the six,” says Perez, who facilitated the collaboration. “It’s important for students to see NASA present on campus so they can envision themselves there in the future. NASA’s presence gave them the confidence to believe in themselves.”

(The other participating colleges are Cerritos College in Norwalk, two colleges in Mississippi, one in New Jersey, and one in Oklahoma.)

NCAS offers community college students focusing on STEM careers a weeklong experience at NASA centers. Nearly 200 internships have been awarded to students since 2007, helping students obtain jobs in the aerospace industry. The travel may be difficult for some students — especially minority students — so NASA On Campus was created last summer to help level the playing field.

For NASA On Campus, 24 COD students first took a five-week online course, administered and funded by NASA. Perez was the instructional assistant for the self-paced class, answering students’ questions. Those who passed participated in NASA-created engineering design and robotics competitions on campus. NASA sent representatives for the weeklong competitions, and will award a student from each of the six campuses a NASA summer internship.

Jorge Perez, center, with students, faculty and NASA representatives.

“Student groups competed for a mock NASA contract,” says Perez. “The focus was to design, develop and construct a functioning rover to perform tasks. During this time students learned team-building skills, listened to NASA speakers, and worked with mentors from local industries who were COD alums.”

Our 2019-2020 Innovation Issue

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To prepare for the pilot project, Perez received online training and visited NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Then he was invited to help run the NCAS program at Langley Research Center in Virginia, which he found “extremely useful” in deciding what would work (and not work) at a community college.

COD has been part of the California Space Grant Consortium since 2015, with Perez as lead. The consortium is the state’s implementation arm of NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, supporting scholarships, fellowships and traineeships for aerospace-­related education, plus faculty training. It nominated COD, which has a Hispanic enrollment of nearly 70 percent, to participate in NASA On Campus.

Creating an oasis of scientific excellence at COD did not happen overnight. Since 2015, staff have been mentoring students to program microcontrollers. Students presented their projects at Armstrong Flight Research Center and USC School of Engineering.

“Every year students did better, developing more complex projects, ranging from low-cost incubators to 3-D printers and satellite prototypes,” says Perez. “They even created a car that could be moved literally with thoughts. I know this sounds crazy, but it worked. Our students’ achievements led to a recommendation for the NASA pilot project. It’s an amazing success story.”

Perez, an adjunct professor since 2011 and a College of the Desert Faculty Association member, is a success story himself. Born in Mexico, he moved to America at 12 without being able to speak a word of English. He received his associate degree in math and philosophy from COD and transferred to UC Riverside, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s in pure mathematics.

His high school science teacher cooked breakfast for him on a Bunsen burner and paid for his AP chemistry exam because his parents couldn’t afford it. Her kindness motivated him to become a teacher so he could help others.

Perez’s students are grateful for the opportunity to reach for the stars.

“It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” one student wrote on a survey after the project. “This program gives you all the information you need to succeed in a STEM career.”

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