CORVALLIS - Marcia Whittaker, a senior studying nuclear engineering at Oregon State University, recently had the rare experience of testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science about how her involvement with a NASA research project through OSU has been "life changing" and "awe-inspiring."

Whittaker, who grew up in a small town in eastern Oregon where education "was not the top priority," told the committee that "in a small farming and lumber community, it is difficult to interest parents and children in the pursuit of knowledge when mills are closing and crops are failing."

She urged Congress to continue to fund NASA's educational outreach programs because these programs are inspirational education, and have the potential to inspire an entire generation of young people to study science and engineering.

As a freshman at OSU, Whittaker discovered that a group of undergraduates were involved with NASA's Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunities Program (RGSFO), and immediately signed on.

Since then, she has traveled three times to Ellington Field in Houston, where she has flown on NASA's KC-135, affectionately called the "vomit comet" because of the aircraft's sudden plunges that imitate a zero gravity environment. Experiments that Whittaker and other OSU students helped design and build have been tested in the zero gravity environment of these flights.

Oregon Space Grant, based at OSU and directed by Andrew Klein, provided scholarship support and leadership for Whittaker and other OSU students involved with the NASA program. Oregon Space Grant also arranged for Whittaker's Congressional testimony and funded her trip to Washington D.C.

Whittaker said the "true genius" of the NASA program is how it inspires high school and elementary students to study science and engineering. The program requires college participants to speak to groups about their NASA experiences.

"I am now able to return to my very small high school and give the students the inspiration that I was lacking," Whittaker said. "The students who spoke of NASA in whispers now send me emails about how they are going to college so they can participate in this program, too."

Ron Adams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering, said that attracting more students to engineering is key to building a top-ranked engineering program at OSU.

"We welcome committed students like Marcia Whittaker to OSU engineering," Adams said. "These students are the living wells out of which flow the creative ideas that will ultimately help build a better future for all of us."

OSU Engineering alumni William Oefelein and Donald Pettit have both received flight assignments on upcoming NASA Space Shuttle flights, and meet with the OSU students when they are in Houston.

Sen. Ron Wyden, who chaired the hearing, called for tripling the number of science and engineering graduates by 2012 and dramatically increasing the number of women working in these fields. Sean O'Keefe, administrator for NASA and former Secretary of the Navy, requested $61.6 million for NASA's educational programs for next year and said education is an official core mission of NASA.

Whittaker said she hopes her fourth year of college at OSU will be "no less amazing" than her first three.

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Ron Adams, 541-737-3101