PLTW Alumnus Spotlight: Kaylee Cunningham

For nearly 25 years, PLTW has offered transformative classroom and learning experiences for PreK-12 students. Now, many of those students are professionals in STEM fields. We recently reached out to several PLTW alumni to learn more about their educational and career journeys and find out what advice they have for current PLTW students. If you are a PLTW alumnus interested in sharing your story, we’d love to hear from you here.

Kaylee Cunningham lives in Gainesville, Florida, and attends the University of Florida where she is a student research assistant. In high school, she completed PLTW Computer Science’s Computer Science Essentials, Computer Science Principles, and Computer Science A courses, as well as PLTW Engineering’s Principles of Engineering course.

In what grades did you participate in PLTW? What were some of your most memorable experiences from PLTW?

I participated in PLTW in grades 10-12. I remember playing with VEX Robotics for Principles of Engineering but the most memorable experience was science fair. I ended up placing first at the district science fair, second at the state, and fourth in the world. It was an incredible, life changing experience.

What did your journey look like to get to where you are today?

My freshman year of college, I started research two weeks into my first semester. I learned to operate the Rabbit Pneumatic Launch system at the University of Florida Training Reactor to irradiate samples.

This position aided in obtaining my first internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where I developed computer models of different fuel concepts. That internship extended into a programming project, aimed at advancing the user experience for nuclear codes.

Following this, I worked on a project design to track fuel particles in TRISO reactors. I was supposed to go to Los Alamos National Laboratory that summer but the program was cancelled due to COVID. So, I reached out to my mentor from ORNL and started on another project focused on fuel modeling remotely. This continued through fall 2020. Starting spring 2021, I began work on a project focused on developing fuel for nuclear thermal propulsion with NASA. Summer 2021, I interned virtually at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, where I developed a program to determine the frequency of occurrence of derecho storms. This fall, I’ve started on a project that will be studying microscopic mechanical testing of spent nuclear fuel. I graduate this upcoming spring (May 2022), and I plan on starting a PhD program after graduation.

Currently I’m a student! Day-to-day, I go to class, go to lab to work with research instruments, and go to triathlon practice.

What did you learn in PLTW that still helps you today?

PLTW taught me two very important things.

First, anyone can be an engineer if they work hard enough. In Principles of Engineering, we learned the basics of engineering. We were taught how to solve problems. Taking the course so early on gave me the confidence I needed to push through a male dominated field of study.

Second, how to code. Even in the nuclear field, I can’t escape programming. It’s so important in every engineering discipline today. Having a strong computational background provided me the basis I needed to excel in the computational research world of nuclear engineering. Without PLTW, I would not be where I am today.

Do you have any advice for current PLTW students?

Don’t give up! It’s ok to fail – classes may get hard, but they are preparing you for your future. It always takes a little bit of struggle in order to learn, succeed, and grow. As long as you continue to study and work hard, you’ll be just fine.