Foertsch has many talents and a zest for space
Until knee problems ended Jenna Kay Foertsch’s volleyball career at Burnsville High School, she hadn’t thought much about FIRST Robotics.
She saw team members heading down to the basement after school. A joiner by nature, Foertsch eventually followed.
“I was really curious because that’s not really a normal place to go,” said the 2015 BHS graduate. “I went down there and they were in the middle of build season and were in the process of building a robot. They pretty much handed me a form and said, ‘Sign up.’ The rest is history.”
Indeed. Foertsch went on to play a leading role as the team’s communications captain in a breakout season for Burnsville robotics her senior year. Now nearing graduation from the University of Minnesota, she has continued as a volunteer mentor each year during the team’s six-week build season.
And Foertsch draws a line from the breadth of experience and skill sets robotics provided to a pair of elite honors she’s earned as a college student.
In December, Foertsch was one of three out of about 100 fall-semester interns for NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston to earn an Outstanding Achievement Award.
And it was announced this week that Foertsch is one of 36 applicants from 13 nations selected for this year’s Brooke Owens Fellowship — an award matching women with paid internships and elite mentoring at leading aviation and space companies and organizations.
Foertsch will spend her summer interning with XPRIZE, which hosts competitions with multimillion-dollar prizes for solutions to great riddles of space, energy, the environment and other domains.
“Most of the other (Owens Fellowship winners) go to, like, Yale and Princeton and are engineers,” said Foertsch, who will finish her bachelor of science degree in business and marketing education this spring. “I don’t know how I wiggled in there.”
Currently living at home in Burnsville with her parents, Erica and David Foertsch, she still makes time for her old team, Blaze Robotics.
She works with members on tasks including public outreach and business planning, said Sean Lenhardt, the Blaze Robotics adviser. She reviews team essays and helps assemble material for the Chairman’s Award — the top award in robotics competitions, judged on a team’s excellence in promoting STEM education and reaching out to the robotics and larger communities.
“I’d say she makes at least three meetings a week” during build season, which begins in January, Lenhardt said. “When she’s not there she is directly corresponding with the kids through emails. ... For the part of the team that she helps out, she’s definitely a very key person. When she was on the team, that’s a lot of the stuff she was involved in, so she can bring a lot of experience.”
The 2015 team Foertsch served as communications captain in her first full season with Blaze Robotics was an eager group of mostly seniors who “kind of came into our own,” she said.
The team won a competition, the 10,000 Lakes Tournament, a first for Burnsville, won three specialized awards and qualified for the FIRST Robotics world competition in St. Louis. The game that year was called “Recycle Rush.”
“We got to worlds because we had one mechanism that could pick up, like, a can in the middle, and not every team had that mechanism,” said Foertsch, who described the event as an international “Olympics” of robotics,
“It was our first time so we didn’t have huge expectations, but just getting there and seeing hundreds of teams, it’s a huge deal,” she said.
A vigorous networker from an early age who ran a teen blog she said reached 45,000 followers, Foertsch became involved with the group Citizens for Space Exploration, which led to her applying for the NASA internship at the Johnson Space Center.
As an intern focusing on data visualization and content strategy, Foertsch was a “key contributor” to NASA’s “Future of Work” study, which reimagines how the space agency might someday redeploy its human capital, according to her NASA mentors.
“Jenna is a passionate, selfless, curious and bold leader,” wrote Ali Llewellyn and Nick Skytland, who nominated her for the Outstanding Achievement Award. “She stands out amongst her peers as not only having a deep interest in space exploration, but also possessing a deep technical knowledge and drive to implement useful solutions that directly advance the mission of NASA. Her honest enthusiasm and eagerness to learn and teach others is contagious and everyone around her is better when she is part of the team.”
Tracing her journeys from volleyball to robotics to space exploration, Foertsch likes to explode stereotypes, such as the notion that athletes and STEM types dwell on separate planets, and women aren’t welcome on the latter.
“I’ve always been kind of outspoken about under-represented groups and people being able to do what they want to do,” she said. “I’m usually one of a few in a group of the things I’m doing.”
At 21, Foertsch is confident about her future.
“I’ve worked really hard the last couple years to build my network to the point where I don’t feel nervous about what I’m going to do after college,” she said. “That used to be such an impending doom, and that is such an impending doom for people my age. ... I have the option of where I want to go next.”