The sky is the limit for this Ivy Tech student

Design technology student will travel to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in May as part of the National Community Aerospace Scholar program.

While most college undergraduates spend the spring semester planning their summer vacations, Levi Hepp is planning a mission to Mars.

OK. So his is a hypothetical trip, but the resulting 3-day voyage to the Johnson Space Center in Houston in May isn’t.

The second-year design technology student has been participating in NASA’s online National Community Aerospace Scholar program since January — a first-of-its-kind national program modeled after Texas Aerospace Scholars, a program originally created by the state of Texas in partnership with NASA and the Texas educational community. Both are designed to encourage community and junior college students to enter careers in science and engineering and ultimately join the nation’s highly technical workforce.

Hepp is one of only 60 students selected from the more-than-250 class participants who will have the opportunity to travel to the space center in Houston for a three-day, on-site event at Johnson. While there, students will form teams and establish fictional companies interested in Mars exploration. Each team will be responsible for developing a prototype rover, designing a line drawing of the rover, and forming the company’s infrastructure, including budget, communications, and presentations. Hepp and his classmates also will get the chance to tour facilities and attend briefings by noted NASA employees — including astronauts, scientists and engineers.

Students in the program have completed four Web-based assignments during the school year, maintaining a minimum grade average to qualify for the experience. They will apply what they have learned during the year to work with NASA engineers.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” says Hepp. “I’ve been a space fan for years — ever since I was a kid. The chance to work with some NASA scientists, designers and engineers is pretty big in my book. Getting to work hands-on with some of the people that put things into space is pretty incredible.”

This truly is an incredible opportunity for Hepp, but perhaps more incredible is his path to success as a student.

In 2008, Hepp lost his job to downsizing after working a couple years for the automotive parts company Porter Engineered Systems in Westfield. Shortly thereafter, he was notified that he was eligible to receive tuition under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program. That is when he signed up for courses at Ivy Tech, changing the course of his life in the process.

In the two short years that have followed, his entire life — from his focus to his facial hair — has been transformed.

Hepp admits that he didn’t have much direction in his life prior to enrolling at Ivy Tech. After graduating from high school, he went to Purdue, spending the whole time wondering where he was going and why. After a year-and-a-half, he finally quit wondering and entered the workforce. Between Purdue and Porter, Hepp held a number of odd jobs ranging from bouncer to semi-pro football player to Target corporate manager. Nothing stuck until Ivy Tech.

“Ivy Tech offered more of a chance for me to get a direction going, where I was just kind of sitting static before,” says Hepp.

His mentor and chair of the design technology program at Ivy Tech Kokomo, Dan Ward, agrees.

“Levi has just been transformed as a person since he’s been at Ivy Tech,” says Ward. “It has been even more noticeable recently during his involvement in the NASA program.”

A few of the changes have been tangible — the hair, the earrings, the sideburns. One not as noticeable but by far more important, has been his change in attitude, and, by extension, his grades.

Hepp has a perfect 4.0 grade-point average at Ivy Tech. He nearly aced the Web-based preparation course, earning 288 out of a possible 300 points, which included a perfect score on the mission proposal.

One thing that has set him apart from his peers in the NASA program, he and Ward believe, is his ability to incorporate into his project the skills he has picked up while in the design technology program at Ivy Tech. His schematic AutoCAD drawings of his proposal earned him a perfect score on the illustration section of the project.

His research during the course investigated the possibility of bringing material back from Mars — something that has never been done before.

“Everything’s been done on the planet by autonomous robots, with only data and photographs being sent back for study,” says Hepp. “There’s never been any actual material returned: rocks, dust, or core samples. It would have to help NASA scientists to actually have a rock in their hand to study instead of looking at a sheet of paper.”

To be successful, program participants were encouraged to do independent research on NASA missions and speak with experts in the field.

Fortunately, Hepp didn’t have to go far to find an expert. Nearly a decade ago, Ward served two summers as a faculty fellow at Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.. He began working with NASA in 1999 and has worked on four different projects over the years for the space exploration agency.

Ward is excited about the opportunity that is before Hepp.

“It’s a heck of a résumé builder,” says Ward with a laugh. “He’s got a lot of experience in the industry, but NASA always stands out on a résumé.”

“It’s great. It’s good for Ivy Tech, too. It is just an honor to be accepted.”

The dates of the on-site experience will be May 20-22, 2010. NASA will pay for Hepp’s travel expenses (up to $1000), food, and lodging.

Hepp will graduate from Ivy Tech in December, but he says he’s not sure what the future has in store for him. He grew up in Northwest Indiana in the Chicago metro area and says he could see himself working for one of that area’s numerous design firms. His ultimate goal is to combine his artistic passion with his design technology education and mechanical background to open up a custom motorcycle and hot rod shop.

Wherever he ends up, and whatever he ends up doing, one thing is certain: the sky — no, make that space — is the limit for this Ivy Tech student.

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