Andie Nye couldn't help but feel a sense of ownership when news broke last week that the NASA space probe Juno had entered Jupiter's orbit.
It's been five years since Nye completed a summer internship at Lockheed Martin, the Colorado aerospace company that developed the Juno spacecraft. During her three-month stint at the company, Nye worked on developing code for the orbiter's software. Nye, who was 22 years old and had just started working as a math teacher at Overland High School in 2010, took on the internship as part of a larger series professional development projects for faculty that were rooted in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).
Nye's role as an intern was hardly glamorous. She had to learn new skills and solve problems on the spot; she had to break out of her comfort zone and focus on a different kind of challenge.
"They have a program for Juno to verify that their software requirements are working in the spacecraft," said Nye, who had just started teaching at Overland, her alma mater. "I was working on the program that ran verification for those requirements. The project is so big and you're working on this tiny aspect; at times, you forget you're even working on something that's going to Jupiter."
The true scope of the project hit home for Nye last week, when NASA announced that Juno had reached its destination after traveling more than 1.76 billion miles through deep space. Nye, who will begin teaching math at Cherry Creek High School in the fall after spending seven years at Overland, felt an undeniable connection to the solar-powered spacecraft.
"I did a minimal part, and it was five years ago. I hadn't thought about it in such a long time," Nye said. "But there was a sense of pride seeing the spacecraft make it all the way to Jupiter. Thinking that I had some small part in the process was amazing."
Having a connection to Juno's flight is no small accomplishment. The spacecraft is set to investigate gravitational, magnetic and atmospheric components of Jupiter and, in the process, reveal important information about our place in the solar system. Juno is the first solar-powered mission to Jupiter, and its one-year mission will comprise more than 30 elliptical orbits around the planet.
"The project made me more interested in new fields. Prior to my work at Lockheed Martin, my interest was pure mathematics," Nye said. "It definitely got me interested in physics, astronomy and a lot of science fields that incorporate math. It made me understand the importance of math to see how it can be used in all of these different fields."
The work also had a direct impact on Nye's teaching style. Taking part in a project that pushed the boundaries of science, math and technology gave Nye important insights about the professional landscape many of her students will face when they graduate.
"It reminded me that for most of the jobs that our students are going into in regards to STEM fields, they're going to have to solve problems," she said. "There was never a day when they said, 'Here's exactly what you're going to have to do. Now do it 10 times.' It was very much, 'Here's what you need to do.' We need to make sure that we're giving our students problem-solving activities. That's the type of task they'll have to do in their careers."