Harding County rancher credits 4-H with launching his career at NASA | TSLN.com

Harding County rancher credits 4-H with launching his career at NASA

Lura Roti
4-H alumnus and Camp Crook rancher, Travis Davis credits what he learned on his family's ranch and through 4-H with helping him launch a successful career as a NASA valve, actuators and ducts design engineer. Photo courtesy Travis Davis

Ten-year-old Travis Davis spent days building a wooden bookshelf to exhibit at the local 4-H Achievement Days. When it was nearly finished, he realized that he’d made a big mistake.

“I had to take the book shelf apart. I cried. This project had taken me forever and now I had to start over,” the NASA engineer recalled.

To make matters worse, he did not have any extra wood. His family’s Camp Crook ranch was 40 miles from the nearest hardware store. So, Davis had to rebuild the shelf using recycled wood.

“In 4-H you learn that you finish projects. So, I did. It also taught me at a young age that even when you work really hard on something, you will not always get first place. Things won’t always go as planned,” Davis said, adding that these were a few of many life skills he gained through 4-H which he applies to his work at NASA.

“Through my background on the ranch and 4-H projects, I developed the mindset that “no” is not really an option. I just need to find a way to do what I really want to do.” Travis Davis, mechanical engineer at NASA

“I get a project and I work with a team of technicians. We are given a goal, a date, a timeline and a budget,” said Davis, who designs valves for the new rockets NASA is building to go to Mars.

“Providing youth with skills necessary to succeed in their future is the focus that drives 4-H programming,” said Donna Bittiker, SDSU Extension State 4-H program director.

“Among the benefits of 4-H are the project-based learning opportunities and the connections between youth and adult mentors,” Bittiker said. “Youth can explore anything they are interested in — whether that is nutrition, livestock production or rocketry — there is a project area for everyone.”

Davis joined 4-H as a Kindergartener. His parents, Doug and Julia, became club leaders when his older brother, Jake, joined 4-H. Along with woodworking, Davis’ other 4-H projects included welding, rocketry, horticulture, baked goods and judging — a contest Davis said developed his ability to communicate.

“4-H taught me that if you have something to say, you need to say it with confidence. No one will believe you if you don’t come off confident,” the 2008 Harding County High School graduate said. “I remember giving livestock judging oral reasons during the Black Hills Stock Show — judges would comment that I was calm and confident, but my palms would be sweating.”

Career trek to NASA Took Persistence

“Insane” is the word Davis admits he would use to describe anyone who would have told him as a high school senior that he would one day be employed by NASA.

“When I graduated I never even dreamed that NASA would be an opportunity — it was not even within reach,” he said.

What he did know is he wanted to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.

“Growing up on the ranch was literally priceless. I equate my childhood to going to a vo-tech school to become a mechanical engineer,” he said. “I didn’t realize how truly lucky I was until college where I learned not every kid grew up with a fully furnished shop.”

Passionate about agriculture, initially Davis saw his career path leading to an equipment manufacturer like John Deere or Caterpillar. His sophomore year of college he actively pursued internships with both companies and received them. He became aware of internship opportunities at NASA through a childhood friend who received one.

Davis applied and was accepted.

A few weeks into the internship, Davis knew NASA was where he wanted to build his career.

“One of the coolest things about NASA is its culture. My managers and everyone I work with have an open-door policy. As a young mechanical engineer, this was a huge deal to me.”

Looking to a future with NASA, Davis realized he needed to apply for a co-op position — basically a job with NASA each summer until graduation. At that time however, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology was not among the schools that filled out the paperwork necessary for students to apply for co-op positions.

Davis took it upon himself to work with administrators at NASA and School of Mines to complete the paperwork so he could apply. In 2012, Davis received a co-op position.

“Through my background on the ranch and 4-H projects, I developed the mindset that “no” is not really an option. I just need to find a way to do what I really want to do,” he said.

Today, Davis and his wife, Amanda, live in Huntsville, Ala. Davis enjoys sharing his story with rural youth. Feel free to contact him to learn more, travis@davisd4.com. F

–SDSU Extension

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