Mike Melzer grew up reading popular science books and enjoyed mathematical subjects, but he had only a slight interest in astronomy.
But when the Anne Arundel Community College student heard about NASA's National Community College Aerospace Scholars competition, he applied because he figured it dealt with all four of the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math.
As it turns out, the program dealt not only with astronomy but was largely geared toward engineering, which the Glen Burnie resident figured was beyond his expertise.
Nevertheless, Melzer created a digital design last winter of a Mars rover, then plotted how to send it to the planet and back on a $500 million budget. For his efforts, he was named one of 80 community college students nationwide to be selected for a three-day project at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
"I didn't really know it was geared more toward engineers than any of the other areas," Melzer, 27, said of the contest.
Melzer grew up in Howard and Anne Arundel counties and graduated from Hammond High School in Columbia. At AACC, he's studying math and physics, and he tutors students in math.
National Community College Aerospace Scholars is an interactive online learning project involving community college students who have accumulated at least nine class hours in a STEM discipline.
The competition at Marshall Space Flight Center called for teams of students to create fictitious contracting companies that focused on Mars exploration. Teams designed and developed 3-D models of Mars rovers for two missions, drawing up not only the devices themselves but the company infrastructure, communications and presentation.
Melzer was part of a team that won both missions.
"The first challenge posed to the companies was a basic fetch-type mission," he said. "The scene was essentially a table with walls around the perimeter, and there were rocks scattered throughout.
"The idea was to gather as many rocks as possible in the specified time period," Melzer said. "The Mars rover my company designed had a very simple mechanical arm, which was essentially used as a rake and dragged the rocks back to the starting area, where they were counted."
The experience, Melzer said, brought together people from different backgrounds who worked together to solve problems, to explore ideas and debate the best direction in which to take a project.
"Seeing that it was more along the lines of an engineering project, I was pretty much out of my element and was doing the best I could to help the team get the project completed," said Melzer, who said the physics and calculus courses he took at AACC helped him tackle the "thought processes behind certain things."
"Seeing that NASA does research in many different areas, kinematics, electrostatics, thermodynamics, and multiple integration come up quite a bit," Melzer said. "The program appeared to be more about teamwork and solving the problem at hand.
"One of the coolest things we were able to see on our tour of the facilities was the 3-D printers that were in the process of printing needed parts for an undisclosed project," he said.
Mary Kassebaum, an associate professor of mathematics at AACC, said Melzer is exceptional at making connections among his courses.
"He's not only interested in doing well in each course, he wants to put the information from all of his courses together in his mind," said Kassebaum, who taught Melzer linear algebra and calculus. "Lots of times he would ask me questions in Calc 3 that came from what we were talking about in linear algebra, and vice versa. It is rare for a student to make these theoretical connections at such an early point in their studies."
Melzer, who has been accepted into the physics program at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he now aspires to work in the space industry.