— Christen McWithey is sitting in front of a 3-D printer the size of a microwave, figuring out how to turn computer graphics into model satellites and telescopes to support a NASA mission.

Christen McWithey is 19 years old.

McWithey, who just completed her freshman year at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she's "blown away" by the opportunities she's had as an intern at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

She's producing the models to help engineers and scientists visualize the creation of a satellite they're working to launch in eight years.

"It's fun; it's really hands-on," said McWithey, who is from Laurel. "When I came into this internship, I was hoping I would get to do that. It's really a great feeling to see I just finished one year of college, and the work I am doing is going to impact this project.

"It makes you feel important. They value you as an intern."

The Goddard center, which builds spacecraft, instruments and technology to study the Earth, sun, solar system and universe, is working to prepare future aerospace engineers and scientists, said Dean Kern, the institution's deputy director for education. The Center hired about 475 interns this summer.

Kern said the program is intended to prepare students for careers.

"They're incredible — not only the skills and talents that they are bringing, but their fresh perspectives to the projects that they're working on," he said.

"They are bringing a lot of enthusiasm and energy. They are assisting in meaningful work. They are contributing to the science and research at Goddard Space Flight Center."

The college and high school interns were selected from a pool of 6,000 applicants for the six- and 10-week placements. College students receive $6,000 for the summer; high school students get $1,800.

To qualify, Kern said, a student must be at least at 16, hold U.S. citizenship and maintain a high grade point average.

The students apply for specific projects; interns are selected by mentors. The bulk work in Greenbelt; others take positions at Goddard facilities in New York, Virginia and West Virginia.

Fifty-seven percent are male; 43 percent are female. Forty percent are minorities or have disabilities.

Kern said the interns interact daily with scientists and engineers and play an active role in their projects.

"They're looking at real-time data," Kern said. "They're looking at real-time formulas and design. They're looking at real-time consumption for building. Goddard builds satellites through conception to launching, and these interns have the opportunity to participate in all levels of that, which is pretty amazing."

Most internships are based in science or engineering, but Kern said Goddard offers a small number in other fields, such as communications or safety code enforcement.

Angel Mills, who graduated last month from Howard University, landed an internship in the center's communications office.

"I never thought about interning at NASA before, and I didn't know that they had internships outside of science and technology," said Mills, 21.

The Detroit woman plans to study intercultural communication at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Mills said her interactions with the diverse people at Goddard and the remarkable experiences they've had should prepare her for a career as an international correspondent.