Career Aspirations Out of this World: Rachael Mann Interviews Aaron Shepard

Aaron Shepard inspires others and models boldness; he is determined to break the status quo. Too often, we are encouraged to take the safe path and spend a lifetime wondering, “What if?” Aaron took that road, at first, but soon he realized there is never a better time to follow your dreams than now.

Tell me about your current role as a student and NASA intern.

I study electrical engineering at Clemson University. Right now, I’m working on my master’s degree in robotics and intelligent systems, designing flexible robots that can grab satellites in outer space. In summer 2018 I interned at NASA Langley in Hampton, Virginia. As part of a joint project with Uber, our team built virtual reality simulators for a flying taxi service that Uber plans to offer in the 2030s. I worked primarily as a project manager, but I also helped wire and program the simulator. In addition, our team got to see a lot of the facilities and equipment that helped humans reach the moon during the space race.

How old were you when you realized you were interested in space?

I’ve been into space for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my grandma and I would watch hours of “Star Trek” together. The first time I watched a shuttle launch was during fourth-grade science class. The moment I saw the rocket boosters roar to life I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut or, at the very least, work in the space industry.

It was during my freshman year of high school that NASA announced they were canceling the shuttle program. Like many people, I thought this meant the end of space exploration. I tried to “grow up” and find a “realistic” career. I went to college, graduated with a chemistry degree, worked in pharmaceuticals. I even got into medical school. No matter what I did, space was always on my mind. At 25 years old I decided to leave medicine for engineering and take one last shot at fulfilling my childhood dream.

How did you learn about the NASA internship?

In my first year at Clemson, I applied for a research fellowship from NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program; Space Grant provides funding assistance and scholarships for students pursuing STEM careers. Aaron Shepard is pursuing a graduate degree in engineering at Clemson University. He hopes to pursue a career as a civil servant with NASA.I got the fellowship and spent that summer working in a lab at school on my satellite capture robot. The next year, I applied for multiple internships at NASA and was contacted (and selected!) by the coordinator for the Aeronautics Academy at Langley.

What has been your most meaningful accomplishment to date?

Just to get my foot in the door at NASA is a big accomplishment for me. I knew that I was taking a huge risk when I changed careers. Making that decision wasn’t easy at all. There were plenty of times I didn’t feel 100 percent confident about my choice, but I still got up every day and did what I needed to do at school and work. I never gave up on my dreams, and now they are starting to become my reality.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Begin every day with a task completed. Whether it’s making my bed or finishing responses for a written interview, my days feel more productive when I start by accomplishing something small.

What advice do you have for students enrolled in career and technical education classes?

Don’t procrastinate! Success in education comes down to deadlines and learning time management. If you have a week to do an assignment, do small sections of it each day instead of everything the night before. Working this way is more efficient, and it helps you retain what you’ve learned.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life?

My dad wanted to be an aerospace engineer but he never pursued his dream because he didn’t think he was smart enough. He regretted not following his passion, and his story is what inspired me to follow mine.

What advice do you have for educators trying to inspire students to pursue STEM-related careers?

The media tends to typecast “STEM people” as smart and socially awkward white males, like Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s hard for individuals who don’t identify with those traits to see themselves in STEM careers. If teachers want to inspire more students to pursue science and engineering, I think it’s crucial that they share more stories in the classroom about the diverse people that make up the STEM fields.

Thank you for inspiring us, Aaron! To learn more about Aaron and his space journey, follow him on social media @spacecadetshep, email him or check out his TEDx Talk.

Seize the opportunity to take your own career out of this world!

ACTE and NASA HUNCH have teamed up to present the CTE Month 2019 and NASA HUNCH video challenge. This year’s theme, “Working Out of This World,” encourages students to produce short videos featuring careers, products or services that could be used in future space missions. The deadline to submit is Feb. 1.

Teaching Martians: An Interview with Rachael Mann

You’re in for a treat! On Saturday, Dec. 1, educator and author Rachael Mann will lead a keynote luncheon at the 2018 STEM is CTE Symposium, during which she’ll address the martians in your classroom.

Aptly titled, Mann’s new book cowritten with Stephen Sandford, former director of space technology exploration at NASA, The Martians in Your Classroom reveals an urgent need for the convergence of STEM and CTE in every learning space. Mann and Sandford discuss the challenges and responsibilities that go along with preparing students for careers that don’t exist yet. They’re out of this world!

To talk about her new book, the STEM is CTE Symposium and interstellar professional development, Rachael Mann sat down with ACTE for an interview.

In what ways is it uniquely challenging to teach a “Martian” compared to previous generations?

In some ways it’s less challenging. Educators no longer have to be the only expert in the classroom. While students connect with rich resources readily available online — and through other digital means such as virtual and/or augmented reality — teachers serve as facilitators, guiding students as they discover, create and innovate.

It is challenging, in that students are able to access information at a rapid rate and it can be more difficult to keep their attention when using traditional teaching techniques. Educators must keep up with the rate of change. Teachers who rely on traditional lecturing, packets and worksheets will find their students tune out. I had a college professor who frequently said, “It’s a sin to bore a child.” In today’s classroom, teachers need to leverage resources and techniques to ensure that students are engaged and learning in a way that will prepare them for their future reality.

How can CTE teachers break down the classroom walls to create globalized learning spaces as referenced in The Martians in Your Classroom?

While we observe #globalcollaborationweek, what a perfect time to ask this question! The world reaches far beyond the walls of a classroom and should be reflected in our learning spaces. Educators and students are not only able to access a global database of information online, but they are also able to connect virtually with other students and industry experts around the world.

Students, employees and employers no longer compete against local talent, alone, as individuals are able to work remotely and they adapt more easily to new work locations and environments. This creates a more competitive workforce, both for the employer and employee.

What can attendees expect from your keynote luncheon at the 2018 STEM is CTE Symposium?

The Martians in Your Classroom isn’t just about space; it’s a metaphor for the future of education based on the forecasted changes in the world around us, both on and off of planet Earth. According to the Institute for the Future, 85 percent of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. That’s just 12 years away! Students in kindergarten in 2018 will enter this new reality when they graduate from high school. For many, the concept of preparing youth for this future can be daunting and overwhelming. Attendees will leave my keynote luncheon at the 2018 STEM is CTE Symposium with an understanding of the “Big 5” things they can do now to prepare students for tomorrow.

How does space exploration apply to varied subjects?

Career and technical education is the playground where STEM principles come to life. When we think of solving the world’s big problems — traffic, cancer, terror, world hunger or water crises — each solution requires STEM and CTE knowledge and skills, along with an innovative mindset. Space exploration is applicable to every content area and grade level and is a fantastic way to connect subject matter content to STEM. Consider a few examples:

Fire Science

On Earth, flames rise. In space, they move outward from their source in all directions. What does this mean for fire science in the context of space travel?

Culinary Arts

What impact has space travel already had on the food industry? What dietary considerations must be taken into account when planning a trip to Mars?


I encourage you to research NASA’s Vascular Tissue Challenge. What additional problems must be addressed in the realm of biomedical space travel? What advances have been made in medicine as a result of space exploration?


The construction pathway prepares future employees to build our future, whether it’s homes, corporate buildings, community facilities or off-planet structures. What additional considerations need to be made for off-planet structures?

Power, Structural and Technical Systems

Within this pathway students “design agricultural structures as well as machinery and equipment. They develop ways to conserve soil and water and to improve the processing of agricultural products.” This will become even more important in years to come. What can we learn about our own environment from the viewpoint of space? Will we be able to grow natural resources for human consumption?

Fashion Design

What impact has space travel already had on the clothing industry? What factors will need to be taken into consideration when designing space suits for the first martian colonists?

What tools can educators seek out for professional development, to help them teach effectively in these spaces?

The Martians in Your Classroom provides tons of resources for educators. They can visit the resources tab on my website and follow #MartianClassroom on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn for relevant information and ideas to incorporate in your learning spaces.

ACTE is a fantastic place to go for the most up-to-date AND projected trends in education and the workforce. Be sure to check out the magazine, Techniques, and its new blog! Attend ACTE’s CareerTech VISION 2018 in San Antonio, Texas, Nov. 28–Dec. 1, and the STEM is CTE Symposium on Saturday, Dec. 1 for even more resources and opportunities for collaboration.