Al Bowers stood in front of a packed room of Pioneer Valley High School students and posed a question: "What do you want to do for the rest of your life?"
They shuffled in their seats as the simple yet anxiety-inducing query led many to talk up and down their row.
"Have you thought about it? Are you thinking about something right now?" he continued.
For 30 minutes Friday afternoon, Bowers, a Cal Poly alumnus who currently serves as chief scientist for NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, captivated more than 200 sophomores, juniors and seniors with an overview of his nearly four-decade career and current research.
Bowers, who joined the agency in the 1980s as a graduate student researcher before rising through the ranks, has contributed to projects involving aerodynamics, flight mechanics and systems engineering. He was there when scientists found water on Mars and has met people who walked on the moon. His students worked on spacecraft Cassini's landmark mission to Saturn and its moons. Now, as chief scientist, Bowers is working to develop research concepts for the future of aerospace technology.
Speaking as part of a educational tour of Central Coast schools, Bowers hopes his appearances will inspire the next generation of aspiring scientists and engineers — many of which come from a background similar to his.
Born in Habu, a small fishing village on the Japanese island of Oshima, Bowers was raised by his mother, a Japanese citizen, and her family while his father, an American serviceman, was away. His family moved to southern California as a child where Bowers, who did not speak English, enrolled in school.
"The first day that I had to speak English was my first day in kindergarten," he told the students. "I was in remedial English [classes] until I was in fifth grade. Just because you don't speak English well is not a limitation."
"It's not easy" he said following his presentation. "You're different; it's uncomfortable. You have to work really hard to try and fit in. Students who are struggling right now, as long as they keep their motivation [up] ... can overcome these things and be vastly successful — more than you can imagine."
While Bowers stressed the importance of education and mastery of fundamental principles of aerodynamics, he told students to not let it crowd their creativity or sense of imagination.
"The most difficult thing your teachers have to do is walk a really fine line between imagination and knowledge," he told the students. "It's critically important that you have the knowledge ... but, there are certain things it turns out that, just because someone tells you that's the way it is, that's not necessarily the case."
Lisa Walters, Pioneer Valley's activity director, called the presentation an "outstanding opportunity" for students to meet with a top research engineer and learn about how to pursue careers in science and engineering.
For those students who want to work at NASA, Bowers emphasized the importance of education and putting themselves out there.
"Go to school, get a degree and try to get an internship," he said. "There's a lot of opportunities that are out there. I rub shoulders with these people everyday — it's a similar story. We started out as students learning how to do this stuff."