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12-year-old to attend ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration

Alena Wicker plans to graduate from ASU and work with robotics at NASA, all before she turns 17


ASU's Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4, home of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is pictured on the Tempe campus on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. A 12-year-old prodigy with dreams of working for NASA recently enrolled at the school.

While most incoming freshman fear college's challenges, Alena Wicker isn't worried. For the 12-year-old, college-level STEM classes are just more online programs.

"I don’t think it's going to be very hard," Alena said. "I already know how to use online programs and am used to using the devices around me to complete my work."

It wasn't until after she had applied to ASU that Alena told her mother, Daphne McQuarter. Alena even completed and submitted her own FAFSA. 

Alena will be double majoring in astronomical and planetary science and chemistry through ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration's new online degree program starting in the Fall 2021 semester. Alena, who lives in Texas, said she chose ASU because of its speciality online space programs.

After college, Alena plans to become the youngest Black female engineer to work for NASA and work in the robotics field and with the Mars Exploration Program.

Alena's love for science began at an early age. 

Alena Wicker, 12, poses for a photo.

"When she was 4 years old, she pointed to the stars and said, 'Mommy, I'm going to work for NASA,'" Daphne McQuarter, Alena's mother said. 

McQuarter said she first wanted to be an astronomer, but as time went on she developed a fascination with engineering thanks to LEGO.

"When I was really young, my mom would get me LEGO sets and take me places to see science experiments and different exhibits," Alena said. "So, over the years, I turned to liking science."

McQuarter said she started buying Alena LEGOs when she was four, and it wasn't long after that when Alena started asking for more challenging sets.

Alena recently finished the second- and fourth-largest LEGO sets in the world: the Ultimate Millennium Falcon and Taj Mahal, respectively. 

Alena said she is looking forward to her graduation coming in May and is excited to learn more about becoming a NASA engineer through her majors at ASU.

But just like playing with LEGO sets, Alena "is just like any other pre-teen," McQuarter said, and that "all kids are different."

McQuarter said Alena also enjoys activities such as swimming, getting her nails done, and running tack. She also plans to look in to taking some vocal classes at ASU since she loves to sing. 

"Alena will get to explore the Solar System and beyond through courses taught by faculty who are actively working on NASA-funded missions," SESE director Meenakshi Wadhwa said in an email. "We are looking forward to supporting her and helping her to achieve her dreams."

Since the online degree program is new, the outcomes are unpredictable, but Christopher Groppi, associate director of undergraduate studies for SESE, said he feels that it could be beneficial for her.

"It is a pretty unique opportunity to have someone so young and enthusiastic in a program," Groppi said. "I'm excited to see how it will work, and I hope that it works out for what she's looking for."

Alena has been receiving academic guidance from Jessica Jenner, the academic advisor for SESE's online degree program.

Jenner said a common struggle with online programs is "losing some of the steam" that in-person conversations tend to carry, but online will be in her best interest for flexibility.

Alena has been working toward creating a podcast that she plans to launch soon and hopes can inspire other young girls to achieve their dreams. She currently shares updates about her journey to her Facebook page.

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