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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Activities & Organizations

Astronaut leads aerospace program to infinity and beyond

Bonnie Dunbar became a member of the NASA Space Group 9 in 1980 and spent roughly 50 days in space over the course of the next 18 years, but to students, she is most well-known as the head of the Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Teacher Professional Learning – and now the director of the Aerospace Engineering program.

“We won’t have an aerospace program without STEM graduates. In fact, we won’t have much of an industry without STEM graduates,” Dunbar said.

“The rest of the world is challenging us right now. We need to make sure we have enough engineers to meet that challenge, and hopefully, we will continue to have space exploration, but if we don’t have the engineers that’ll build the rockets, the vehicles…or even the sensors that are monitoring the Earth, we won’t be very successful.”

Dunbar first came to UH as a doctoral candidate while employed at NASA. After retiring in 2005, she went on to serve as president and CEO of the Museum of Flight, a nonprofit air and space museum in her home state of Washington.

When Dunbar came back to UH this year, she founded the STEM Center, a program that works to improve K-12 students’ capabilities in science, technology, engineering and math.

Her newest appointment is within the interdisciplinary aerospace engineering program, which offers both Master of Science and doctoral programs under the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The program was directed since its inception 20 years ago by professor Karolos Grigoriadis, who led the program until he stepped down this year.

“The intention is that we teach the students to design and understand the next generation of vehicles that operate in the atmosphere of the air, as well as in space,” said professor Pradeep Sharma, the chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“(The program) deals with things such as materials; engineering that is specific to airspace; electronics; the control systems; how you control sensors, actuators and all those parts; the fluid mechanics — how they fly. … There are many different aspects that are very unique to the aircrafts, so our program prepares students.”

Because of issues of national security, the aerospace engineering program largely consists of domestic students, limiting the pool of potential candidates in a field that is already lacking. Enrollment tends to vary greatly, as the better the space program is funded, the better enrollment is in the aerospace engineering program.

“This is a program that caters a lot to the domestic students rather than everyone. Other engineering programs, other science programs can and do benefit from foreign students, but this program is more difficult to do that,” Sharma said.

“(Foreign students) are allowed to join the program, but employment is very difficult in the U.S. … Boeing or NASA – when they’re hiring — they will only hire citizens or permanent residents.”

With Grigoriadis still on board as a professor and a member of the college, Dunbar is on track to make the program bigger and better.

“We’re interdisciplinary, but we’re actually going to be partnering with more parts of the University. So while we don’t have all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, (it will include the) architecture department,” Dunbar said.

“We’re having discussions with NASA — how we might work with them in designing their next architectures to the moon and Mars and other places, or the next generation space station.”

The program offers electives in mathematics, space physics, computer science, telecommunications, human factors and systems engineering, among others, according to the official website, and it is available to anyone with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering or a related field.

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