Walking into the Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy last spring, senior Claire Whittaker didn’t know what to expect. Sure, she had filled out the multiple application essays and sent in her grade point average and class rank, but she was still unaware of how she would be impacted by this week-long experience. The HLCA is a program designed to build and hone 16-18 year olds’ leadership skills by tackling real-world challenges in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Students from all over the world gathered at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Tennessee a few weeks after spring break for the program. They would then be split down into smaller groups, where they would discuss topics such as leadership strategies. They would also have classroom time where they would learn some of the basic physics behind something, say aerodynamics, and then would go and apply those skills through experimentation.
“They’d make us build a model rocket” said Whittaker, “and then shoot it off outside and stuff like that”.
A part of the program included talks with mentors from NASA, something that stuck with Whittaker. It was through those that she learned the value in taking advantage of opportunities, and also making sure to seek them out.
“There was one story that really had an impact on me. It was an engineer at NASA and he had gone to Texas A&M.” said Whittaker, “He was a civil engineering major not doing very well in his classes, not getting super great grades and just sort of struggling but he had a brother that worked at NASA.
“His brother was like ‘just call them’ and to just see if he could work there after graduation. The guy ended up landing a job just because of his motivation to contact the company himself and be proactive.”
Before going into the program, Whittaker had mostly closed herself off to the math and engineering side of the field.
“I was a little more locked into knowing that I didn’t like engineering at all,” she said “I only preferred the biology and health sciences”.
Once she attended the program, Whittaker was able to open her mind to the idea of meshing those natural sciences with engineering.
She took this idea and put it into her own life by spending part of the summer as a lab assistant at KU, something she never would have done if it weren’t for her experience at the Honeywell Leadership Challenge Academy.
“Everyone that ended up talking to us really emphasized not only taking advantage of opportunities, but looking for them.” Whittaker said. “I think that is something that I would take away from it. Just being able to be open to new experiences, which I don’t know how much I was before.”