Photo: Nick Dentamaro, Brown University

Name: Tess Caswell

Current Employer: Blue Origin

Current Title: Flight Controller

Education: B.S. Mechanical Engineering, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Sc.M. Geological Sciences, Brown University; Ph.D. Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, Brown University

Which of our Challenger Learning Centers did you visit? The first was the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, which was built in a nearby town during my childhood. I have also volunteered at several other Centers.

When did you visit a Challenger Learning Center?  I flew my first Challenger Center mission at age 14, but I began volunteering during the construction of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska when I was 12.

What do you remember most from your experience? My first Challenger Center experience was at a fundraising event and it was, simply, amazing! I had the opportunity to meet two astronauts: Pete Conrad, who walked on the Moon during Apollo 12, and Joe Allen, who flew two shuttle missions. They gave me advice on becoming an astronaut that influenced my trajectory for years to come.

What do you remember the most about flying your first Challenger Learning Center Mission? What I remember most from my first Challenger Center mission was the way it built our group into a team. When we first started, everyone was focused on their own priorities at their console in MCC or station onboard the spacecraft. By the end, we were all working as a team to overcome challenges and accomplish the mission. It was very satisfying to see our group come together. Of course, I also remember it being just plain fun!

Have you always been interested in STEM? Practically! I became interested in STEM at age 10, when a speaker from NASA came to my school in Alaska. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Did the visit to the Challenger Learning Center affect your decision to pursue a STEM degree or career? If yes, how? I had already decided that I wanted to an astronaut when I met Pete and Joe at the event. However, they gave me practical advice that helped me plan a successful career and encouraged me to study engineering. After the event, Joe mailed me an autographed picture of himself on a spacewalk – not only did that simple gesture make my day (okay, my year!), it empowered me to follow my dreams.

Why is STEM education so critical at a young age? STEM education at a young age gives kids the tools that will empower them to pursue STEM careers. STEM education in the higher grades can be challenging, so equipping all students with the right skillset to tackle intimidating subjects like math and physics before they become daunting is crucial. Plus, if a student falls in love with STEM at a young age, they will find it easier to persevere when the going gets tough!

What advice would you give to students who want to pursue STEM degrees or careers? Find your passion. Sometimes STEM education can be challenging. Following your heart and being passionate about the career you pursue will help you overcome any challenges that arise. Challenges are inevitable, so keep a positive mindset and always look for solutions rather than dwelling on the problem.

Why should people support Challenger Learning Center’s STEM programs? Challenger Learning Centers provide outstanding STEM education in a unique, fun, and engaging environment. They combine learning and inspiration in an unforgettable setting!

In one sentence, how would you describe your Challenger Learning Center experience? Inspirational!