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University leading effort to prep for local aerospace economy

University leading effort to prep for local aerospace economy

NOVEMBER 11, 2020 — To succeed in preparing the next-generation workforce for San Antonio’s emerging aerospace economy, stakeholders will need to focus on helping future workers with interdisciplinary training, non-tech skills such as communications and mentoring resources. This was the conclusion at a UTSA-organized virtual meeting with some of the top names in local research, science and engineering firms, and government who shared their thoughts on how to develop San Antonio’s next-generation STEM workforce.

The town hall on November 6 was the second organized by UTSA.

Kiran Bhaganagar, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and principal investigator with NASA CAMEE, is leading the City-Based Alliance comprised of more than 35 area industry, federal research laboratories, government and education experts. They are working together on a NASA proposal to strengthen STEM curriculum in primary and secondary schools and attract more females and minority groups to reflect the diversity of South Texas.

At the first town hall in October educators from school districts, community colleges and universities focused on STEM curriculum development. This second town hall included industry and government executives from Boeing, Intelligence systems, Space Sciences and Mechanical Engineering divisions of SwRI, Standard Aero, WEX Foundation, City of San Antonio, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and Port San Antonio to name a few.

“How are we going to effectively connect the mentors with the students to get them excited about these…career pathways?”

UTSA is the only university in San Antonio to offer baccalaureate and postgraduate degrees in cutting-edge research and disciplinary studies, such as engineering, computer science and technology. Thus, faculty experts in data sciences, mechanical and electrical engineering, manufacturing and intelligence systems and federally funded the university’s top research center’s—NSF CREST C-SPECC center—along with NASA CAMEE, were key participants in the meeting.

Collectively, the group took on the task of planning to leverage San Antonio’s emerging aerospace economy. Aerospace-related Industries include aviation, air space, new technology, involving drones, rovers and more, along with developing technology for all things beyond earth, such as life on Mars and satellites. Participants noted that the local aerospace industry has great potential for synergy between public and private sectors, training resources, educational institutions, along with research and development.

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in aerospace industries often earn higher than average wages because of advanced skills required by the industry and need to motivate workers to concentrate on maintaining high-quality work standards. These higher paying jobs would provide an important driver to San Antonio’s future economy.

“During our meeting it was very clear our present vision of aerospace programs is not sufficient for the next generation,” Bhaganagar said. “We concluded to do any innovative research in aerospace, it’s very important to tightly couple it with data sciences, manufacturing, communications and the new technology. So those are key things of focus to us.”

To prepare the next-generation workforce for the local aerospace economy and attract more of the targeted demographic groups, the participants agreed on three takeaways. First on their list is interdisciplinary training because it’s predicted future job opportunities in aerospace will require a broader set of experiences than a specific skill set, as with a mechanical engineer, for example. A second priority is the development of soft skills, such as with communications. The group suggested creating more opportunities to advance soft skills in K–12 and in college.

“The third area is with mentoring. How are we going to do that? How are we going to effectively connect the mentors with the students to get them excited about these aerospace and various career pathways that are available?” said Bhaganagar. “Key to this is multidisciplinary internships, so the internship is not focused in one area but over a broad spectrum of areas.”

Bhaganagar added these recommendations will include feedback received from their first town hall. In the interim the City-Based Alliance will survey students and parents gauging their interest in STEM classes and careers. All the information will be reviewed at a December workshop to begin the steps of writing formal proposal with the plan for NASA.

Funding for the City-Based Alliance is provided by NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Program. This initiative is also supported by the National Science Foundation: Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science initiative. Representatives from UTSA on the City-Alliance leadership team include Karin Vielma, Chris Combs and David Akopian.

Bruce Forey

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