Turning a passion for STEM into a career

Raytheon Missiles & Defense and University of Arizona host a hands-on learning event for middle school students

The formative moment, she said, came at age 13, when she heard a physical therapist speak at her school, and she began envisioning herself in that role.

"A female who looks like me is standing on this stage, telling me what it's all about. It made the science track attainable," said Nelson, who grew up in Nigeria.

Years later, including time spent in the U.S. Navy, she found her way into engineering, and today she works as vice president of Quality and Product Safety at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, a Raytheon Technologies business. Her career path shows there are many ways into engineering.

Nelson was the keynote speaker of the Raytheon Advancing Youth in STEM Day, which strives to encourage student interest in STEM. The event drew 125 students from multiple middle schools in Tucson, Arizona.

The initiative gives students from diverse backgrounds the chance to meet leaders in STEM fields and test their skills with engineering challenges. Now in its 16th year, the event is part of the company’s investment in STEM education.

Raytheon Technologies engineers and University of Arizona staff volunteered their time at the event to help students build, inspect and perform acceptance tests on Galileoscope telescopes, all intended to help them understand the duties and oversight that comes with being an engineer.

Student building a Gallileoscope

Mark Worsley, a member of Raytheon Technologies Engineering Leadership Development Program helps middle school students build their Galileoscopes at the STEM event.

A volunteer assists a student with her project

A University of Arizona volunteer shows a student how to assemble the eyepiece of her telescope.

“Everyone sees engineering as one job – one thing, but there are many career options. It’s just a title for all of them. There’s aeronautical engineering, aerospace engineering, biomedical engineering … so many opportunities,” said Sophia Cota, a student at Apollo Middle School.

The event inspired 14-year-old Cota to dig deeper into topics that interest her and see how she can incorporate them into a career.

“[You should] take everything into consideration. Don’t limit your options,” said Cota, who is drawn to biomedical engineering, specifically making prosthetics, but anesthesiology and criminology also pique her interest. 

A student inspects her Gallileoscope.

Olivia Marquez, a member of the Raytheon Engineering Leadership Development Program helps middle school students inspect their Galileoscopes.

Students gave a thumbs-up to signify they had completed inspection of their telescopes.

Students gave a thumbs-up to signify they had completed inspection of their telescopes. 

A guest panel representing University of Arizona faculty and students, and early career engineers also answered questions about working in STEM.

“Think back to me at age 13. This is the time to get youngsters to discover the possibilities of STEM,” Nelson said.

Those possibilities include working in the defense industry, which she acknowledges can be intimidating to students who haven’t been exposed to it.

“We want more women. We want diversity. We want more people to do STEM,” Nelson said.

And outreach programs can help make this happen.

“Working for Raytheon Missiles & Defense, there’s this noble mission. We are improving defense in order to deter wars of the future to protect democracies,” Nelson said. “It’s really about the impact of what we do – and STEM is really all it is.”

A student looks through the eyepiece of her Galileoscope.

A student looks through the eyepiece of her Galileoscope.

A group of student-built Galileoscopes

Students have built 3,000 Galileoscopes over the past 16 years as part of Raytheon Technologies STEM initiative.