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CU Boulder leads aerospace research
(Photo courtesy: University of Colorado at Boulder)

By James Mejia

In the shadows of the statuesque buildings of the state’s leading aerospace research university, the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder), sits a nonprofit struggling to meet the needs of scores of first generation migrant students. La Casa de la Esperanza Learning Center provides housing and hope – a home where students of Spanish-speaking families can hone English language skills and get after school tutoring help, and be instilled with hope for their own futures, for their families, and their entire communities.

Thanks to a grant from NASA and the University of Colorado at Boulder, the students of La Casa de Esperanza will get a glimpse of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and soak in the possibility of becoming a CU Boulder student through the Junior Aerospace Engineering program. In the second summer of the three-year program, 10 middle school students and two fifth-graders will build 3-meter rockets to launch at the end of the program. Students will work with mentors who are CU Boulder undergraduate engineering students and will spend time in CU Boulder’s Space Science Building and will tour a local commercial space company called Blue Canyon Technologies.

As with other CU Boulder outreach efforts which includes 1,500 middle and high school students in summer and pre-collegiate programs, the Junior Aerospace Engineering program exposes students to career pathways that they couldn’t otherwise imagine. For Tom Mason, Communications and Outreach Director of Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at CU Boulder, NASA grants provide an education opportunity to engage the surrounding communities. “One of the main goals is to attract students and give a positive experience with STEM fields. A lot of commercial space groups are moving to the state and we want to show the kids opportunity if they continue to pursue STEM careers.” The University has also been successful in bridging contact between CU Boulder undergraduate students and La Casa youth. One engineering team of students will work with La Casa students to help them build rockets. “We want to show that CU Boulder is a community that is welcoming, that there are opportunities in STEM at CU Boulder, and in future employment,” said Mason, “By showing our facilities they get exposure to a world they may not know exists and we can show them routes to get into that world. Some science themes are difficult to grasp, then we have hands on activities and see their eyes light up. It is exciting to be a part of.”

La Casa is a 32-unit residential community operated by Boulder County Housing Authority designed to help migrant agricultural workers. Besides housing, the center provides educational and recreational services. It is here that Michael Lozano Roman works as a STEM educator and technology specialist, bridging the divide between migrant students, their Spanish-speaking families and institutions like CU Boulder.

“We want to make sure students on site can feel more engaged, can feel like they are at home. We also want to engage them in STEM,” said Roman. “Our mission is to guide students into pursuing higher education, to finish high school and go to the university. Through our programs you can teach all kinds of skills – teamwork, research.” For Roman, the rocket club he manages is, “Not just about rockets but also listening to role models and what kind of skills they need to have.” Roman also rebuffs the idea that technology is a male subject, “Female students are really encouraged to be involved, we need to get rid of the impression that technology is just for boys.”

The Casa rocket program seems to be having the desired effect. Former Casa resident and student Jose Jimenez did well enough in his high school studies to enroll in CU Boulder this fall. The CU Boulder-Casa collaboration gave Jimenez enough insight and interest in science to pursue a minor in engineering alongside the study of his education major.

Jimenez is an inspiration to budding scientist, Edgar Cintora, whose family started at Casa but has since moved on. As a student at Niwot High School, Cintora continues to make the trek to Casa for their rocket club. “I like pretty much everything about the club. I was hyped every time I would come. I still have my little sheet with all the information they gave me from last year about how rockets work.” With Cintora’s interest in science stoked by the rocket club, he would often stay after class to talk technology with his middle school teacher. Given all he learned about science in the club, his teacher moved him up to advanced science. Cintora praised the partnership with CU Boulder undergrads, “We checked out labs with a guy named Gotham who goes to CU Boulder. I am hoping that I have an opportunity to have a career in science. I would like to go to CU Boulder.”

La Casa Program Director, Vanessa Escarcega, sees STEM as a tool to engage kids at the elementary, middle and high school level with very limited resources. “Our program is beneficial to the children, especially those that come from migrant workers. Our program only has two staff, and sometimes we struggle to find people who are passionate about helping our children. We are always looking for volunteers. Most of our work is done through community volunteers and college students.”

University’s Role in Aerospace

Some of Colorado’s largest companies are involved in aerospace – Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Ball Aerospace, and Sierra Nevada all call Colorado home. The state is also well represented in aerospace by the U.S. Air Force installations, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command operations in Colorado Springs. The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics is a third branch of influence which comprises Colorado’s aerospace industry.

CU Boulder receives more NASA funding than any other public university in the United States. The university was founded in 1876 and educates more than 29,000 students every year, 20 percent of whom are students of color. CU Boulder is the only Tier-1 research university in the Rocky Mountain region.

According to the Brookings Institution, 400 Colorado companies employ 70,000 in the aerospace industry. Space-related projects contribute 4 percent of Colorado’s gross domestic product or $9 billion.





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