‘We watch how they grow:’ NASA student research program lands at Langley

'We watch how they grow:' NASA student research program lands at Langley

HAMPTON, Va. – Studying our local environment…from thousands of feet in the air.

More than two dozen college students from around the country are at NASA’s Langley Research Center, wrapping up the second week of an eight-week research program.

Started in 2009, NASA added an East Coast location for its Student Airborne Research Program (SARP) this year, choosing Langley as the host. SARP allows students access to NASA instruments and technology — including aircraft — that they can use to measure air quality, water quality, soil moisture and more.

Langley’s team is focusing on the ecosystem around the Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s a little bit different. It’s really cool getting hands-on experience, doing all these things, especially flying in these really small planes which most people don’t get to do,” said Tabitha Lee, a graduate student from University of Houston.

Lee is one of five student mentors, joining 22 undergraduates and six faculty mentors in Langley’s program.

Outside the Langley hangar on Wednesday, Lee joined U.S. Environment Protection Agency scientist David Williams for a flight. Williams tells News 3 the research being done has a purpose for those on the ground.

“We have a lot of data over time and by looking at how vegetation changes over time due to climate change, or just human habitation, it’s important to know how the ecosystem is responding,” he said.

Now in its 15th year, SARP organizers say students who finish the program can take their research as far as they want.

Program Scientist Melissa Martin worked as a mentor in the program’s first year. She says it has a 93 percent retention rate in keeping students in the research field, with some getting their research published after the eight weeks finishes.

“We provide them with a survey at the beginning and then we watch how they grow throughout the program and they come out different,” said Martin. “They take their own measurements, they take the data from those measurements, they do their own analysis and then they come up with their own research projects and then they present these projects at the end of the program.”

SARP coordinators at Langley tell News 3 that the program has a lot of benefits for the center too: networking with students who could become future employees.

The program has also helped the center build relationships with area universities, like Christopher Newport University in Newport News and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where the students are staying throughout the duration of SARP.

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