How One NASA Intern Used Their “Rookie Smarts”

You won’t believe what happened on the third day of Wolf Cukier’s short internship at NASA over the summer. This 17-year old high school student from Scarsdale, New York was given an assignment to check images from a super-strength satellite. That’s when it happened—and it surprised everyone, including Wolf.

This teenager discovered a new planet.

This yet to be discovered planet by scientists and astronomers was picked up by a teen when he noticed something strange through telescope images. It turned out to be a planet 1,300 light-years away from Earth. This news was just confirmed by NASA.

So, when most student interns were still trying to find the breakroom, Wolf took his assignment seriously enough to flag a couple of strange spots in a solar system far outside of ours. “I took it to my mentor,” Wolf said, “we looked at the data … and noticed two additional dips in light, so we started doing analysis to see if it actually could be a planet.”

Wolf raised a few eyebrows by this point.

His finding was enough to get other NASA scientists involved. Further inspection unveiled a planet that is about 6.9 times as large as Earth. It was soon named: TOI 1338 b. The planet is not just any planet, either. It is a circum-binary planet, meaning it orbits around two stars, not just one like ours does. (Think Luke Skywalker’s fictional home, Tatooine.) This is what TOI 1338 b looks like, only scientists don’t believe it can be inhabited, as it appears to be very hot and may not have a solid surface.

Wolf’s brother later suggested the name “Wolftopia,” but that didn’t fly with NASA.

Photo Credit: BBC

How Did He Do It?

Pause and reflect—this 17-year old peered into the very cosmos that seasoned scientists had been looking at for decades. He had no experience nor advanced degrees. But look what he did? Wolf has been congratulated and interviewed many times since his discovery. He’s a sort of hero back at his high school, as you can imagine. He said his NASA mentor has been very supportive and the agency is very “impressed” by what he achieved as an intern. In fact, many people, inside and outside the space agency wonder: How did he do it?

My answer? Rooke smarts.

You know this term, don’t you? “Rooke smarts” describes the good luck that often follows a newbie on a job because they are, in fact, new. For instance:

  • They’re not limited by the rut of past expectations many veterans have on the job.
  • They can see what experienced people can’t, as they’re not bound by experience.
  • They can imagine new possibilities, as imagination is greater than their education.
  • They bring ideas to their tasks as they’re less jaded than those of an older age.

To be honest, I don’t know if all of these worked in Wolf Cukier’s favor, but he was only 17 years old and had not yet entered his career. He hadn’t even finished his K-12 education. He began that “dream internship” starry-eyed, dreaming of what it might be like to work their full-time someday. And I believe it helped him.

How Should We Approach Our Leadership?

I believe we who are teachers, coaches, parents, youth leaders and employers need to remember “rookie smarts” the next time we hear a student’s idea that sounds ridiculous. Sometimes what they don’t possess may be the very reason they reach a goal. And they may just pass up Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials in the process. They are a “maker” generation, and desire to create videos, products, apps, services and even discover new planets. Are we ready? May I suggest:

  • Let’s be quick to listen and ask questions about their ideas.
  • Let’s begin with belief, not doubt that they can pull them off.
  • Let’s commit to walking alongside them when they commit to an idea.
  • Let’s encourage entrepreneurship since 72 percent of teens want to become one.
  • Let’s help them stay realistic, knowing projects may take longer than expected.

Students from Generation Z feel empowered by the smart world they’re accustomed to and are now applying it to jobs. Today, Wolf is back at high school, wearing his NASA jacket, over his Star Wars T-shirt (he bought the jacket with his employee discount). What does he want to do next? He plans to attend a university and study physics and astrophysics. After graduation—a career in space research is appealing, and Wolf hopes his achievement during his internship will look good on his resume. At this point, none of his teachers doubt that could happen.

How One NASA Intern Used Their “Rookie Smarts"