STEM Learning Opportunity Encourages Underrepresented Minority Students to Get Interested in Physics, Astronomy
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that minorities and women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math professions. But in this story, a rocket scientist is doing something about it.
Two years ago, Pennsylvania State University Professor and Department Head of Astronomy and Astrophysics Randall McEntaffer started Rockets for Inclusive Science Education (RISE) with support from Battelle. The program was funded by Battelle and Penn State with the mission to foster and maintain an interest in STEM fields using suborbital rocket flight as a way to develop an interest in physics and astronomy among underrepresented minority students. The year-long course was available for students at State College Area High School near Penn State in collaboration with the District’s Office of Equity and Inclusivity.
RISE’S debut proved to be a success as 17 participants in grades 8-12 designed, constructed, and programmed rockets that they fired up to 2,000 feet. When the rockets came back to Earth, the students were able to use the single-board computer, camera, and various sensors they built into the rockets to analyze its performance. This early success ensured the program was brought back in fall 2021 with the students from the previous year returning to continue their work as well as introducing a whole new group of participants to an exciting STEM learning opportunity. In addition, RISE’s success opened the door for expansion to other universities with continued funding.
Students working on their rockets
The new funding from Battelle and Penn State created a new opportunity in Baltimore, where Morgan State University (MSU) became the next school to launch a RISE program with the continued help of McEntaffer. The program was launched in collaboration with Morgan State’s Director of Defense & Space Programs, Gerald Whitaker.
Battelle Program Development Manager Forest Banks saw the opportunity to expand the program from Penn State to Morgan State because of the early success in State College and Battelle’s relationship with a consortium of HBCUs. It provided a logical pathway to start the RISE program in Maryland through Battelle’s regional giving funding. Banks facilitated a meeting between McEntaffer and Whitaker and the idea took off. “Morgan State students and faculty are very excited about participating in the RISE Program with PSU,” said Whitaker. “This is a great opportunity to increase student interest in rocketry, aerospace engineering and STEM fields as they move forward in their academic careers. With the support of Battelle, the RISE program helps us to focus on solving the STEM talent pipeline crisis that is being fueled by the underrepresentation of minorities.”
The Morgan program has more than 20 participants (half of which were women) from the local Baltimore area. The students are learning all the aspects of a scientific suborbital program including proposing ideas, designing the payload, fabrication, testing and calibration, integration with the rocket, flight support, data analysis, and dissemination. “The second iteration of RISE has been another busy year,” said McEntaffer. “Despite having one year under our belt there are some exciting and new aspects to the second year.” “We have many returning students who have already completed the base project. Therefore, we had to come up with new activities, so we added in computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing. These new additions enable students to learn engineering software that can be used to design prototypes for new rocket parts.”
Later this year, the Morgan State and Baltimore high school students went to Penn State to meet their counterpart RISE group and execute launches of their RISE rockets together.
“Recruiting students from larger cities like Baltimore and Historically Black colleges and universities is one way to help increase the number of Black and African American students majoring in physics and astronomy,” said McEntaffer. “Bringing these students to State College and campus will hopefully open their eyes to the possibility of living and studying at Penn State.”
McEntaffer sees this iteration of RISE as a great second step for the program and will continue to develop RISE as they expand the program to more universities across the country. As the program continues to grow, Battelle will focus its funding on expanding to other Minority Serving Institutes including HBCUs.