Even NASA college interns have to work from home during pandemic

Imagine getting a dream internship at NASA.

There is so much to look forward to from the exciting new discoveries, to meeting the brilliant engineers and scientists, and learning from mentors about potential careers.

Then the pandemic hits and the majority of NASA employees are required to work from home — including students. For two interns at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., the learning experience was complicated by working in a virtual environment.

Internships are an important part of NASA’s STEM engagement and as part of the recent National Intern Day, Juan Battaglia and Gracie Awalt described their experiences. 

Many NASA internships are hands on in a lab and working completely remote made learning those new skills difficult, Battaglia said. His internship at NASA Armstrong focused on developing a climate control circuit for the micro Fiber Optic Sensing System (micro FOSS) unit. Battaglia was specifically tasked with designing a circuit that would heat and cool the device in extreme conditions.

Battaglia is a junior at the University of Central Florida, who is studying electrical engineering. Without the commute to work, he had time to not only complete his internship, but also his schoolwork.
The remote internship had its challenges, but the NASA Armstrong team worked to include Battaglia as much virtually as he would have been in person.

“Daily meetings do a lot to make you feel more integrated, and being able to call your co-workers at any time is great for when you get stuck on a problem,” said Battaglia. “I would call at least one of my mentors individually about once a day, depending on what kind of problem I was dealing with. They were always very helpful and seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing, and how I was thinking about a problem.”

Battaglia said he learned the skills needed to complete his assigned tasks.

“Being able to arrive at a solution after lots of brainstorming and research gave me a sense of accomplishment despite not being able to see it all come together in person,” he said.

Gracie Awalt provided support to the Office of Strategic Communications on the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator X-59 during her 2020 virtual internship at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. (Courtesy photograph)

“The most important things that this internship gave me are the confidence in my skills as a professional and as an engineer, and perspective on what the engineering industry is really like,” said Battaglia. “I was really impressed by how much my mentors cared about what I was doing and what I was thinking. They trusted the interns to complete their projects, and that gave us a huge sense of responsibility”.

For Awalt, it took some adjustment to get used to a remote internship, but once she did, she thrived.

She provided support to the Office of Strategic Communications, specifically working on the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator X-59, during her virtual internship last year. One of the many positive aspects of her virtual internship was her ability to discipline herself and mange her internship tasks which gave her a new skillset to later manage her final year of college remotely.

“I think I learned new skills working remotely, and I handled it well after I got used to it,” said Awalt.

She planned out her day by checking a spreadsheet she created that listed her daily tasks, as well as major project tasks she was working on over time.

“It gave me perspective on what I needed to accomplish in the future, and what I’d already achieved,” shared Awalt.

Many internships for college students were cancelled during the pandemic, however, NASA adapted and made them happen remotely. Just like the NASA workforce was adapting to working from home, so were the interns.

On learning of her acceptance for her NASA internship, Awalt shared, “I felt amazing, it felt like fate. I was not mad that it was happening during the pandemic at the time, because I was grateful to be doing anything at all, let alone something that literally contributed to something as impactful and inspiring as NASA missions.”

Internships at NASA Armstrong continue to thrive and are again taking place this year in the virtual environment. To learn more about NASA internships visit the https://intern.nasa.gov/.

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