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September 21, 2023

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NASA exceptional service award winner speaks to students

A NASA engineer who worked on the Mars rovers visited the University Saturday as part of the Northwest OHIO STEM Symposium.

The symposium was designed to educate pre-k through high school teachers and college professors on ways to make science, technology, engineering and math more fun and understandable for their students.

The keynote speaker was Kobie Boykins, a NASA engineer who works at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“An interesting story about how I got to where I am today started with me being a class clown in fifth grade,” he said. “My teacher pulled me into the hallway and asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I told her the Reading Rainbow guy who also played in Star Trek. She told me to spend 10 percent of the energy I use to make people laugh in reaching that goal. From then on I became very focused and knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

Boykins attended Rennsyler Polytechnical Institute, one of the oldest, non-military schools in Troy, New York.

“The first day I had an 8 a.m. class, which was chemistry and materials and the professor gave us a pop quiz with 3 questions. ‘Find the natural log of 2 without a calculator, compare the intake of a stroke engine with that of a human being, and something else.’ Needless to say we all failed miserably, but our professor taught us a valuable lesson, which was to practice critical thinking,” he said.

During Boykins’ junior year, a professor in the Office of Student Minority affairs recommended that he speak to someone from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA.

“I received a call from JPL and they wanted me to work for them,” Boykins said. “So I ended up doing a co-op for fall and summer semesters. JPL is located in Pasadena, California. Whatever they asked, I did. It was fundamental analysis. I punched the cleats on the wheels for the Rovers.”

Boykins went on to graduate from college and soon landed a job

with JPL.

“My manager asked me to work on this job for six months, which actually ended up being my full time job,” Boykin said. “I helped design and build the solar panels that enabled the Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, to operate correctly. We always over engineer everything at NASA. Opportunity was supposed to last 90 days and it’s still on Mars sending images more than 9 years later.”

Boykins then moved on to work on Curiosity, the rover that landed on Mars in 2012. It made headlines that year with evidence including the presence of water could have supported life

on Mars.

“After I worked in the Mobility and Mechanisms Department for nine years, I’m now the deputy section manager of new tech missions,” he said. “Basically I’m building a new section of mechanical engineers within JPL. Our newest project is the new rover we are launching in 2020. The rover will find samples and cash them back to Earth for us to review.”

For his hard work, Boykins has received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, one of the highest honors given to NASA employees and contractors. For students struggling with the mid-semester slump, he has some valuable advice.

“Always be curious,” he said. “Understand that failure is okay, but it’s the way you recover from it that matters. It’s always darkest before the light. Don’t judge yourself by your grades, focus on the knowledge you took away from those classes.”

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