From Dually Enrolled CSM College Student to NAVAIR Physicist to Inventor: Kristina Rickard Pursue–And Achieves–The Impossible

Kristina Rickard was just 15 years old when she started college at the College of Southern Maryland through the dual enrollment program. Since then

Kristina Rickard was just 15 years old when she started college. Already a student at Great Mills High School, Rickard began her higher education journey at the College of Southern Maryland through the dual enrollment program.

Since that time, Rickard has thrived. Now a physicist for Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, she has made strides professionally and personally, and has even invented and created a technology to capture energy from sound – a feat that many people have told her was impossible.

But Rickard is not interested in hearing what others say is impossible.

The Lexington Park resident has spent more than a decade on a fast track to success – more if you count the foundation her parents gave her to work hard and be open to new ideas – and her time at CSM gave her a leg up when it came to competing for schools and jobs.

Brian Hammond, CSM’s director of admissions, said stories like Rickard’s are exactly what the dual enrollment program is meant to accomplish. “Kristina is definitely a testament to the program,” he said.

Dual enrollment courses are a critical component in CSM’s efforts to provide high school students with the early college experience. CSM has offered early admissions enrollment for high school juniors and seniors since 1980 and the program has evolved over the years. In Fall 2007 the college began waiving 50 percent of its tuition for dual enrolled students, and today, CSM’s dually enrolled students are able to take their courses on campus, online, at their high school or virtually using video teleconferencing technology.

Rickard is not the only person in her family who has taken advantage of dual enrollment. In fact, all three of her brothers did so, and it was a critical component in their success, says her father, Jeffrey W. Dronenburg Sr. Her oldest brother, Jeffrey Jr., enrolled when he was a senior in high school.

“It made so much sense because it was absolutely college credit,” Dronenburg Sr. said. College credits at CSM are guaranteed to transfer to dozens of Maryland schools, and are accepted at many schools outside the state. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity. They can learn in a safe environment with smaller classes, not 250 people in an auditorium. … Real learning takes place in the classroom and it’s a real way to kickstart the college experience.” From his perspective, the college classes were a great way for his children to gauge what they really wanted to do, and to makes those decisions while still living at home and before they went off to college far away.

Rickard was already performing well in high school when she started at CSM, where she took three calculus classes, a college English class, a history class and more. She had finished these classes and had considerable college credit by the time she graduated high school, putting her far ahead of many of her competitors when she applied for the Department of Defense’s SMART Scholarship. Winning that scholarship paid her full tuition at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“There were thousands of applicants for that scholarship, and only seven physicists were selected,” Rickard said. She was one of those seven, partly because she had already shown that she was dedicated to school and knew how to succeed in college.

Also, she found that she was able to do better in high school because of her experience at CSM. Rickard had been home schooled for a while in elementary school while her family was overseas, and she had enjoyed the ability to learn at her own pace. In high school, taking a class for an entire year felt for her like stretching the material out to suit the school year, rather than learning and moving on. At CSM with a class lasting a semester, she found the pace to be much faster. That helped keep Rickard’s interest in the subject, and her good grades in dual enrollment translated to a higher GPA at Great Mills High School.

She said she appreciated CSM’s smaller class sizes, knowing that in a subject like calculus her classes would have included 300 people at a typical university. “It meant I had a lot less stress and a lot more learning,” she said.

Hammond said Rickard’s experience is what many students report. Dual enrollment allows students to learn what it’s like to be on a college campus, as well as how to meet the expectations of professors – all while still under the guidance of their parents and high school resources.

“This way, they’re not just tossed into the pool by themselves,” Hammond said. “It’s kind of like dipping your toe into the water first and seeing what it’s like. They know what they’re getting into before they get there.”

After college, Rickard went to NAVAIR. She has just finished fulfilling a three-year service commitment to work for the U.S. Navy as a civilian in exchange for the SMART Scholarship. And being with NAVAIR has brought that acoustic energy invention to life.

The invention has been a dream of Rickard’s since she was 15. She and her family were playing a dinner-time game where each of them would take a turn at mentally creating something and then talking about how they would do it. The only rule was that there were no boundaries – they had to come up with the idea first, and then start working out how to make it happen. Each family member had a tendency to talk about things they were interested in and come up with ideas related to that, and for Rickard, it was music.

“I was a musician and I was learning about speakers,” she said. She was gaining an understanding of how microphones work – electricity goes into the speaker and amplifies the sound. She wondered what would happen if the route was reversed – sound goes in, electricity comes out. From that dinner table game, an idea was born, an idea that she took to the science fair her senior year.

That was when the naysayers showed up.

Through extensive research and experiments, during which her parents’ living room was packed full of about 30 speakers and her family had to wander the house wearing ear protection, Rickard was able to create proof of concept, which is the main requirement at the science fair. “By the end of the project, I showed that I could reverse the operation of a speaker and I researched how you could charge the batteries. I showed it could work. And it was amazing to me how many people came to my booth at the science fair and said it was not possible.

“It was widely accepted that it was impossible but I had proven you could do it,” she said.

For the next few years, Rickard never let up on her invention. As she was taking classes at CSM, she was always thinking about how the concepts she learned could be applied to it. In Colorado, she kept thinking about it. When she started at NAVAIR, it was at the top of her mind. Then, finally, she had the opportunity to make it happen.

NAVAIR has a program called the Innovation Challenge, in which teams of workers get together and have six months to make something new. Rickard found a team of three other people who were willing to see her vision, or at least to try it out and see if they could do it. Once her team was in place, Rickard did her best to step back and let the team work. In fact, she was not the team leader on the project, even though it was her idea.

“I was too emotionally invested, and I knew that if I was the leader, I would want to push the team in the way I wanted to go instead of the way that the project needed to go. I knew it could mean I had blinders on,” she said.

Rick Tarr, who works in the technology transfer office at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, said Rickard was a great match for the command’s inaugural NAVAIR Innovation Challenge, which is a competitive initiative in which teams of junior employees propose their concepts.

NAWCAD is finding opportunities to partner with CSM and other colleges and universities in a variety of ways. In the past, NAWCAD has been able to employ university students to help with inventions like Rickard’s. “We have thousands of scientists and engineers solving military problems, and when they do that, they invent things,” he said. From there, the Navy works to make sure those inventors are properly compensated and that the products are not solely used in the military, but in the civilian marketplace as well.

Tarr said NAWCAD’s partnerships with colleges are beneficial to all involved. “We’re producing a workforce that is staying in Southern Maryland, like Kristina is doing,” he said. “We see CSM as an integral part of that ecosystem.”

Because of all these pieces in the puzzle, Rickard went from a family game around the dinner table to NAVAIR. Now, after all her dreaming, thinking, researching, experimenting and working, the NavNoiseX exists and is fully operational as a prototype. The invention looks nothing like Rickard expected it to, but it performs exactly as it should and as she said it would in that high school science fair in 2009.

“The MIT Energy Club vice president was recently asked if acoustic energy harvesting was possible, to which he answered no, and listed several reasons why it was impossible. Well, I took each of his reasons, each of his challenges, and made those excuses into project milestones. And for all the people who said I couldn’t do it? I did.”