Beyond Astronauts

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Brownsville SPACE Academy educating students about careers in the aerospace industry  

 

Teaching young people that the sky’s the limit is taking on new meaning in Brownsville with the launch of SPACE Academy. The goal of the STEM Program for Aerospace and Careers in Engineering is to expose students to a variety of subjects that could one day lead to careers in the aerospace industry.

“Boys and girls dream about being astronauts,” said Adrian Dorsett, interim career and technology education administrator. “Now they can really learn about careers in the space industry and see that it’s more than just astronauts.”

With the start of the 2015-16 school year, the Brownsville Independent School District moved into a new phase of the district’s successful STAMP program, which stands for Science, Technology, Architecture and Medical Professions, and helps prepare high school students to explore possible futures through innovative curriculum specific to these fields.

SPACE Academy will build on the basics of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program that now includes some 2,400 BISD middle school students.

“We really are bringing space to Brownsville to capitalize on this huge growth in South Texas,” said Dr. Roni Louise Rentfro, district coordinator for school improvement. “It’s in its infancy, just like the space industry in South Texas.”

The growth she refers to includes the expanding presence of United Launch Alliance in Harlingen and the development of the world’s first commercial vertical launch facility by SpaceX near Boca Chica Beach.

Students wanting to attend SPACE Academy must apply while in the eighth grade. This year marks the first wave of freshmen to enter the curriculum, with 42 students enrolled.

SPACE Academy is not a free-standing school, but a specific curriculum incorporated into the more traditional coursework taught at all six Brownsville high schools.

“We’ve moved away from magnet school programs, so students can give more focus to an area of interest at their home campuses,” Rentfro said.

The curriculum was developed by Project Lead the Way, a leading provider of K-12 STEM programs.

“Our world-class curriculum and high-quality teacher professional development model, combined with an engaged network of educators and corporate and community partners, help students develop the skills necessary to succeed in our global economy,” states the organization’s website, pltw.org.

For the entering freshmen, SPACE Academy will offer courses like introduction to engineering.

“It’s not aerospace specific,” said Erika Sikes, lead career placement officer. “They will get more specific in the sophomore year and by the senior year we can offer them something very specific to their interests.”

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Some of the more advanced curriculum is already in place.

Porter High School teacher John Lynch teaches aerospace engineering, which is among the classes that will be available to SPACE Academy students. The senior-level course follows a program of study sanctioned by Project Lead the Way, and Lynch is an instructor certified by PLTW.

“I really believe that my experience in the working world is a huge benefit to what I can teach the kids,” he said. A mechanical engineering technology graduate from Purdue University, Lynch has years of real-world experience to inspire lesson ideas for his high school class.  “When I’m talking about aerospace, I can tell them what works and why because of what I’ve done.” In his seventh year of teaching, he continues to share what he learned with his students;  hands-on studies in the dynamics of flight play out in the classroom when students build gliders from balsa wood. Using sandpaper to make adjustments to the wings that change the way the plane glides, students get to apply what they have learned about aircraft design and flight in a way that they can see the results as they fly the gliders around the room.

“They are making adjustments based on the knowledge of what they have learned,” Lynch said. “It’s loads of fun, but they know I’m going to grade them on straight and level flight. It’s a real learning moment when they see all those lessons written in notebooks come to life.”

Lynch, who is also a licensed private pilot, said his class also includes the opportunity to use a high-quality computer flight simulation program similar to those used by pilots in training. “Anyone coming out of this class will have an upper hand on getting a pilot’s license,” he said.  

After a semester of studying the dynamics of flight, the students will explore space travel and orbital mechanics in the second semester. The students will build and launch model rockets based on what they learn in the classroom.

“What I really like about this program is the stuff I’m teaching is not busy work,” Lynch said. “It is real. If you have any interest in the aerospace field, these are real-world applicable lessons.”

Lynch’s excitement for his craft extends well beyond the classroom and he sees tremendous educational opportunities with the development of the SpaceX launch facility.

As a member of the Launch Brownsville committee that worked on bringing billionaire Elon Musk’s innovative company to the Valley, Lynch had an opportunity to visit with several SpaceX engineers at an event at the Historic Brownsville Museum.

“I got to meet a few of the engineers from SpaceX, and they are being very supportive of local education,” he said.

Lynch said as he was describing his model rocket project, one of the engineers suggested that perhaps students one day could build even bigger rockets and actually launch them from the SpaceX facility.

“I got chills. I want to do that,” he said.