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Student’s robot design earns him trip this week to NASA Space Center

By Diane Larson, Copy Editor

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Owens student Tony Smoktonowicz shows his Lego robot that helped him win a spot at a 3-day NASA program at the Marshall Space Flight Center. He's one of only 35 students nationwide there this week and the only one from Ohio.

Owens student Tony Smoktonowicz and his LEGO robot that earned him a spot at a three-day program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. He’s one of only 35 students nationwide there this week and the only one from Ohio. (Photo: Diane Larson)

Tony Smoktonowicz’s “aha” moment came in 2011 when he stopped at a red light in front of Perrysburg’s Levis Commons.  He was driving a FedEx truck. It was the latest in a series of what he describes as unfulfilling jobs following a short stint in the Navy in 1998.

At that red light he said to himself, “There’s got to be more. There HAS to be more.”

That epiphany set into a motion a series of life-altering decisions that culminate this week with a trip to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama as part of an elite group of community college students from all over the nation.

Smoktonowicz is one of 155 community college students nationwide, and the only one from Ohio, accepted into the National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program. He’s among a group of 35 who are at the Marshall Space Flight Center Dec. 3-5 for a three-day, hands-on engineering project.  The program’s for community college students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.

Smoktonowicz quit his FedEx job in 2012 to become a full-time Owens student.  He’s studying electronics and environmental health and safety. He’s also a student worker in both the electronics and machining lab.

As part of his studies, he made a robot whose mission would be to detect methane gas in landfills. “I’ve always liked robots. That’s been my passion,” he says.

He made it out of LEGOs and even used the machining lab’s 3-D printer to create LEGO parts he couldn’t find.

That robot caught the attention of Diana Stachowiak, the chair of Owens’ Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering Technologies.  She told Smoktonowicz about an Ohio Aerospace Institute Scholarship.  “She said I should apply for the scholarship,” he says, even though he thought “my little robot idea would be too weird.”

Tony Smoktonowicz designed and built robot that passed demanding NASA competition standards.

Tony Smoktonowicz designed and built a robot that passed demanding NASA competition standards.

It wasn’t.  Smoktonowicz won that state competition in April after the judges decided his little robot idea could have far-reaching applications on a different planet like Mars.  He was then picked to be part of NASA’s National Community College Aerospace Scholars program. It involved a demanding, five-week online course, which he passed with perfect scores.  That earned him a trip to Huntsville this week.

Maria Chambers is the NASA program’s coordinator.  She says once students arrive at the Marshall Space Center, they’ll be tasked to design a Mars rover.  She says the experience is invaluable for students who may potentially want to work for NASA.  “It’s a good opportunity to get their foot in the door.  Many get internships and network with other STEM college students,” Chambers said.

Smoktonowicz’s career goals now include a potential future with NASA.  He plans to graduate next December from Owens and will then try to get a paid internship at NASA’s John Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.  After that, he intends to go to the University of Toledo in the fall of 2016 to continue his studies.

The 46-year-old married father of two grown children knows he’s getting a late start on this career.  But he trusts where all of these experiences are taking him. “My ultimate goal is to get a Ph.D. in electronics.  I hope that at some point, God willing, that NASA helps me get there.  Spend some time at NASA, get some experience, then come back and teach. That’s what I’d really like to do.”

NOTE: The NASA National Community College Aerospace Scholars program is currently accepting applications for the Spring 2015 program.  It’s open to community college students interested in a STEM career.  NCAS is funded by NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) and the Minority University Research Education Program. (MUREP).  All costs are covered with the exception of a $30 registration fee.  The deadline to apply is Dec. 15. https://ncas.aerospacescholars.org/

 

 

 

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About the Contributor
Diane Larson, Copy Editor

Diane Larson is a veteran broadcast journalist . She is currently Managing Editor/Co-anchor of 13abc Action News at 5p, 6p, and 11p at the ABC television...

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