Eight Santa Ana Unified students are spending the summer interning at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Top, from left, Denise Garcia, Minhanh Chau, Michelle Tran, Ah Ho, and Rosa Yanes. Bottom, from left, Troyce Morales, Paula Casian, and Luis Terrones.

Eight high school students are spending the summer helping scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory study dwarf planets, design future Mars missions, observe Earth’s climate change and even look for extraterrestrial life.

The students from Santa Ana Unified School District belong to a prestigious eight-week internship at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, allowing them to work alongside some of the nation’s top engineers, analysts and scientists.

The internship was created this summer as part of California’s Career Pathways Trust, the nearly $500 million effort aimed at promoting partnerships between schools, community colleges, business and institutes to prepare students for real-world jobs.

Through the Trust, scores of students across the state have also landed paid summer internships at medical centers, tech companies and entertainment firms, learning skills alongside professionals that educators say will help them in college and eventually guide them as they choose careers.

“This is not a job shadow,” said David Seidel, manager of the lab’s education program. “We expect these students to help our team perform high-level work.”

‘Out-of-this-world’ training

Minhanh Chau, from Santa Ana’s Segerstrom High School, is interning in the lab’s Exoplanet Exploration Program, the department responsible for discovery of planetary systems around nearby stars.

Chau works with a team that manages the department’s website. She builds infographics and works on other web design duties.

“This is not a job shadow,” said David Seidel, manager of the education program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We expect these students to help our team perform high-level work.”

“This is so thrilling. I get to come to this place every day and work at a place that searches for alien life forms,” she said.

Paula Casian, from Godinez Fundamental High, is helping write instructions for the handling of diodes and soldering for the hardware being built for a rover set to launch in 2020 as part of a mission to further explore Mars.

“The most important thing I hope to learn this summer is the level of education and skills required to become a successful manufacturing engineer in the scientific world,” she said.

The lab has 600 interns at its campus this summer. But the Santa Ana teens, all incoming seniors, are the only high school students.

Each student will receive a $4,000 stipend at the end of the internship in August. The funding comes from the propulsion lab’s partnership with OpTerra Energy Services, which is working with the Orange County Department of Education’s OC Pathways Project.

“This is such an extraordinary opportunity. To be interns at JPL and get the NASA experience as high school students, I can’t imagine a better entry into the field,” said Jeff Hittenberger, the county department of education’s chief academic officer.

The students were chosen for the internship based on academic achievement in science or math Advanced Placement courses, and because they expressed an interest in pursuing careers in science, technology, education and math, or STEM, fields.

The students each work nearly 40 hours a week. They carpool daily in two SUVs the 50 miles to Pasadena from Santa Ana, leaving at 6 a.m. to avoid traffic. They regularly sit in on staff meetings and are required to provide reports to supervisors on their team’s work.

“This experience will be very valuable no matter what job I choose,” said Saddleback High student Luis Terrones, who is considering a career in software development.

The student works with web developers and editors to maintain, update and provide quality assurance for the website chronicling the Dawn Mission, a satellite currently orbiting and mapping Ceres, a dwarf planet 260 million miles away.

“I’m learning how to work in a professional environment, and how to work with others to get the job done,” he said.

Busy summer for other students

The Career Pathways Trust is a two-year effort created to blend academics with hands-on work experience in high-demand industries including health care, accounting, technology and engineering.

The program, believed to be the largest single investment in career technical education in the nation, last year awarded $250 million in competitive grants to 39 school districts, county offices of education, community colleges and charter schools. The grants ranged from $583,000 to $15 million.

An overwhelming demand for the money prompted the Legislature to allocate an additional $244 million this year to 40 different agencies.

This summer, more than 1,500 high school students statewide are expected to participate in internships funded through the Trust.

At Los Angeles Unified, which received a $15 million grant last year, more than 300 students are spending their summer in paid internships at UCLA Medical Center, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, Kaiser Permanente hospitals, the Discovery Cube Los Angeles children’s science museum, and at other business or sites across the region. The students earn $9 hourly through the internships.

“Industries really want to work with our students. They see this as an opportunity to train future employees,” said Esther Soliman, the administrator for LAUSD’s Linked Learning Program. “It’s also much easier for many students to do the work in the summer because their schedules are more flexible.”

Damian Fuentes, an incoming senior at STEM Academy Hollywood, is interning with LAUSD’s facilities department, learning how to connect Wi-Fi networks, install electrical circuitry and perform other construction projects.

“This summer, I’m really hoping to figure out what I want to do with my future,” said Fuentes, who’s considering a career in electrical engineering because of the summer program. “I really think this internship is going a long way to help me figure that out.”

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