MAVEN will orbit Mars and collect information about its atmosphere after it reaches the red planet next September.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- David Summers can recall his first encounters with engineering growing up in Southern West Virginia -- rebuilding an old MG car with his father, or the Texas Instruments computer he learned to program with as a child in the 1980s.
Now Summers, a 1992 graduate of Poca High School, can say he has tinkered with something out of this world. As an electrical engineer working in the Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Summers helped work on NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution mission (the MAVEN), which launched Monday from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Summers, who grew up in Liberty and Red House, graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in computer engineering. His work on the MAVEN involved the Langmuir Probe and Waves instrument on the satellite, which measures the density of the ionosphere around Mars to determine how quickly gases from the planet's atmosphere escape into space.
"As an electrical engineer, people come to me and say, 'We want to study this, and here's how we think we can do it,' and I work with a team to develop an electronic component that fulfills that mission requirement," Summers said.
Unlike Opportunity or Curiosity, which are rovers collecting data from the surface of Mars, the MAVEN will orbit the red planet to collect information about its atmosphere once it reaches the planet next September.
Summers said that although he has worked on other NASA projects, he feels particularly connected to the MAVEN because of how involved he was in testing its different components.
"MAVEN is special to me because I've been involved with the integration and test of the LPW instrument onto the spacecraft," Summers said. "I've spent more time working with the spacecraft than I have with the other missions."
Summers' father, Roy, who still lives in Red House with his wife, Lou Ann, said he could tell in middle school that his son was interested in pursuing a career in science. Roy, who worked as a carpenter, was always building model planes and rockets with his son. He said David was a good student growing up.
"He said in middle school that he wanted to be an engineer; he never did waiver from his goal," Roy said. "He's done very well. We helped him get started, but he's accomplished the rest of it through his own hard work."
Cindy Daniel, assistant superintendent of Putnam County Schools, said the school district has recognized that career exploration should start in middle school, which is why the school system has added new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math learning modules to its middle school technical education labs this year.
RESA 3 recently chose to hire a STEM specialist to consult with teachers in the counties covered in that RESA, which includes Putnam County.
"It's a new position, and it's something our RESA asked for," Daniel said. "He works with teachers within the RESA on STEM-related projects."
Putnam County also will hold a STEM fair this spring. Unlike its traditional science fairs, Daniel said the STEM fair would encourage more mathematics and technology-related projects on top of more traditional science projects.
Meanwhile, Putnam County Schools has introduced the JASON project at the middle-school level. The project, created through a partnership between the Sea Research Foundation Inc. and the National Geographic Society, provides multimedia curricular experiences, including reading selections, hands-on activities, videos and online games for students.
"There are career opportunities in those fields, and we want to try to provide the resources and the opportunity for our students so they will be well prepared when they go on [to] postsecondary [education]," Daniel said. "We want to provide lots of options and opportunities for them to explore."
According to Summers, students in West Virginia are capable of earning the degree they want and getting the job they want, as long as they look at the big picture.
"As a kid growing up in West Virginia, it's sometimes hard to see the big picture and what the opportunities are," he said. "It's very easy to take a $30,000-a-year job right out of high school, instead of paying a lot of money to go to college and get a degree where you can earn a lot more after you actually get the degree.
"It's more of a deferred payback. I think it's an obstacle a lot of people face -- taking the immediate job rather than being a poor college student for four years and, hopefully, having a better job when you come out the other side."
Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com or 304-348-5189.