ORT Uruguay helps students reach for the stars


For ORT Uruguay student Mathias Cenas nothing is impossible any more.

The IT student was a member of a team which beat rivals from MIT and Harvard to third place in NASA’s 2011 Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts “モ Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) competition.

“I couldn’t believe it!” Mathias said on his return to Montevideo from Florida where he and his teammates from Uruguay and Clarkson University in New York presented their designs for a safe and relatively cost-effective way to launch a manned mission to Mars.
“This competition has taught me that whatever impossible thing it is you want to do then you can do it, if you’re committed enough.”
But this is not the first time that Mathias has beaten the odds. A couple of years ago it would have seemed impossible that he could have taken the first step of realizing his ambition of becoming an IT engineer by studying at Uruguay’s top university.
ORT Uruguay provides scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but even with a 50 per cent reduction the tuition fees were beyond Mathias’s reach. Then he applied for a CAMINO TIC scholarship, passed the requisite exam and interviews, and is now completing his third semester for free thanks to European Union funds channeled through the Rotary Club.
“ORT is the most important university in Uruguay and it’s very important in IT because it has the best professors and more choice of topics to study than other universities. We have plenty of computers and books and the teachers are always available for us,” said Mathias, who lives with his mother and two half-brothers.
“Without the scholarship I may not even have been able to study at a cheaper university and I would have ended up with fewer prospects in life. ORT also found me a job at TCS providing IT support for American clients. I am saving the money I earn to pay for further studies at ORT when my current programme has finished. I know a lot of people at ORT who have won scholarships to study in universities overseas so maybe I’ll do that eventually, study for a Masters in another country.”
Mathias’s successes in his studies and in the RASC-AL competition are a source of pride and satisfaction for ORT Uruguay, which is committed to taking on 100 Rotary-sponsored students from disadvantaged backgrounds over three years through CAMINO TIC.
“We’re in the second year of the programme,” said Dr Jorge Grunberg, the Rector of ORT Uruguay. “It resounds with ORT’s mission: we’re targeting our expertise at people who need it the most and also we’re reaching with a powerful Jewish message to the very outer reaches of Uruguayan society where Jews seldom operate.”
Students like Mathias were chosen for ORT not only for their intellectual ability but also for their drive.
“They are ambitious; they want to progress. It’s a match made in heaven,” Dr Grunberg said.
Its connection with the Rotary Club also allowed ORT Uruguay to help Mathias and his three Uruguayan teammates in another way.
“NASA gave us a little money to cover expenses in Florida but we didn’t have enough for our airfares to get there,” said Giorgio Gaviraghi, president of the firm Exponential Design Lab in Montevideo, an advisor to the RASC-AL team with Clarkson University Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering Pier Marzocca. “ORT was capable of getting us financed by the Rotary Club to go there. It was very important.”
In Florida, the Uruguayans and their American teammates presented their concepts to a panel of NASA and industry leaders.
“They did a great job,” Dr Marzocca said. “I’m very pleased with the collaboration that we initiated with the group from Uruguay. They’re exceptionally good and talented students.”
Clarkson and the Uruguayans were brought together because the former failed to qualify for this year’s contest and the latter needed American sponsors to be eligible to compete.
Once the partnership had been established they collaborated via email and Skype “モ the Clarkson students primarily in charge of the system engineering analysis and implementation aspects while Mathias and the others were in charge of architectural design, timeline and business aspects.
The result was “Yvy pita”, which means “red world” in Guarani, one of Uruguay’s indigenous languages. Central to their project was the creation of several space shuttles, some with the ability to capture asteroids in order to mine resources.
“These are conceptual designs, futuristic concepts “モ the first stage where the most important characteristics of space architecture systems are defined, which may lead to transformative ‘revolutionary’ technologies that NASA could use in future space exploration,” Dr Marzocca said.
“They’re looking for thinking out of the box,” he added. “NASA people have been used to always doing things in a certain way and having innovative ideas coming from college students can let them think differently.”
Mathias is already thinking of his next “impossible dream” “モ to win the RASC-AL competition, ideally as part of an ORT Uruguay team.