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Curiosity leads York College students to ask: “Is there life out there?”

Professor Drew Wilkerson with space-like background

While some people think of slimy, green, sci-fi creatures when pondering life beyond Earth, others take it as an invitation to explore. At York College of Pennsylvania, that sense of curiosity is just what Stephen “Drew” Wilkerson, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, hopes to uncover in his Spartan Speaks lecture, “Are We Alone in the Universe?”

As NASA’s Perseverance rover sends back visuals from Mars, Jenny Donohue ’23 is hitting refresh on her web browser to see the latest updates. The Mechanical Engineering major hopes to someday work for NASA as an aeronautical engineer and create the tools that astronauts will use to learn more about Mars and maybe even galaxies beyond our own.

“I’m always excited to learn and explore these things,” she says. “We can’t just worry about ourselves. We have to remember that Earth is not the center of the universe. There’s so much out there for us to uncover.”

Part of that learning comes from her York College education. While Donohue’s Thermodynamics class doesn’t necessarily cover the solar system, she is learning about how heat works within the universe. She’s also understanding the reasons why water in a liquid form is necessary for life, as opposed to a frozen or gas form. And in her shop classes, she’s learning the skills to create tools that may someday advance those experiments.

Why speculation is good for education

Wilkerson’s happy to share his opinion despite the side eye he sometimes gets from others who don’t share his passion. With a lifelong interest in the solar system and astronomy, he’ll willingly admit he believes in “life out there.”

“I’m a curious person. That’s why I’m an engineer,” he says. “Some people are not worried about this kind of stuff, and that’s fine. But I think there’s a lot of other people who are curious, too. And we’re going to see what we can find.”

Many modern technologies have come out of science and military endeavors, such as self-driving cars, drones, and even military-grade food sources, Wilkerson says. A quick search on the NASA website can show how many of these advances came about as a result of space exploration and being curious about what exists beyond our own planet.

“When you look at electricity, water, and all the things we take for granted, you start to realize how important science and questioning is to the advancement of society,” he says. “If all of those things were going to be turned off for a week, we’d be in a pretty rough spot.”

Questions that advance our society

Nicolas Berardi ’22 hopes to work for the Department of Defense and is already starting conversations with the agency as he wraps up his Mechanical Engineering degree at York College. He sees space exploration and questioning the existence of other life forms as a healthy practice for a functioning society.

“We’ve been exploring Earth and all it offers for as long as history documents it,” he says. “We’ve only tapped into what could be accessible to us in space. There are so many organisms that could be beneficial to us.”

It’s that sense of curiosity and questioning that Wilkerson hopes students continue to have as they engage with York College. “We benefit from pushing the limits of science,” he says. “There’s a lot more opportunity here.”

Join us for Spartan Speaks

Sign up for the Spartan Speaks Series: “Are We Alone in the Universe?”

The Zoom lecture will be held Thursday, March 4 at 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. More information can be found at https://admissions.ycp.edu/register/Spartan-Speaks-Mar4.