Lutz attends VAST Academy

Published 5:57 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

Prince Edward County High School senior Henry Lutz attended the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars Academy (VASTS Academy) July 9-15.

VASTS Academy is designed to challenge scholars by applying their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in order to create a proposal for a manned mission to Mars.

This year’s program began late in 2015 with 551 scholars enrolling in an online class. Scholars completed coursework, which was evaluated by master teachers from across the region, and students completing the course received two college credits from Thomas Nelson Community College. Out of the 551 scholars competing for a spot in the VASTS Academy, Lutz was one of only 180 selected.

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The competition was quite rigorous. Some of the scholars who earned an A in the course were not selected to attend the academy.

Scholars who were selected were broken down into three groups of 60 to attend one of the three weeklong sessions. Scholars stayed in dormitories at Christopher Newport University in Newport News and worked at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton to complete their mission to Mars proposal.

Each group of 60 scholars was further broken down into five teams of 12 members each: Mission Integration, Mission Transit, Human Factors, Science and Surface Operations, and Strategic Communications.

The teams worked collaboratively within their groups and alongside undergraduate interns, master teachers and NASA scientists and engineers to devise plans to meet vital mission objectives. In addition, the teams needed to coordinate all their activities across all five teams to ensure the success of the entire mission. Communication both within each team and between teams was a major focus of the week’s activities.

Teams were also given budgets. Part of the budget was applied to setting up meetings with other teams, and fines were levied for behavior that wasted time. The scholars underwent an interview process before being assigned a position within the teams.

Lutz was part of a Science and Surface operations team responsible for determining the scientific goals of the entire mission as well as determining the location on Mars that would best allow them to achieve those goals. At each stage of the process, the scholars had to justify their choices using scientific, mathematical, and logical reasoning. Again, communication skills were brought to the forefront as the team debated ideas and strategies before making group decisions.

The intense immersion into the project gave the scholars the chance to observe and experience a variety of careers in the areas of math, science, engineering, and technology. The scholars also took part in presentations, tours, and group work, which often was not concluded until 1 or 2 a.m. As a culmination of the week’s activities, each team presented their work to a panel of professionals consisting of NASA scientists, engineers and technologists, as well as various aerospace industry representatives.

During the closing ceremony, the scholars heard comments from Sen. Bill DeSteph, SSAI Inc. Vice President Dr. Robert Fleishauer and NASA Langley Research Center Systems Integration and Test Branch head Mark Thornblom concerning the importance of continuing to pursue an education in STEM-related field to the United States, Virginia, industry and the scholars themselves.