When he’s teaching at Pennsylvania State University, Professor Randall McEntaffer doesn’t see many minority students in his astronomy and astrophysics classes. It is no different around the country—Black students comprise about 14% of the college-going population but only about 4% of physics degrees are awarded to them each year.
This year, Professor McEntaffer is doing something about it. Battelle is supporting his new program called Rockets for Inclusive Science Education (RISE), a year-long course for students at the nearby 2,300-student State College Area High School in collaboration with Dr. Seria Chatters-Smith, the Director of Equity and Inclusivity for the district. RISE is designed to immerse students in what amounts to a space mission, with the main task being the development of a scientific instrument for a suborbital rocket flight. The student mini-payload will be launched as a ride-along subpayload on a pre-existing NASA suborbital rocket program.
“We recognize the need to get these students interested in physics and astronomy at a younger age because they aren’t doing it at the college level,” Professor McEntaffer said. “We want them to develop a ‘scientific identity’ so that they can envision themselves as professionals in these fields. I want to get them working with their hands and minds, participating in it.”
The recognition of strength in diversity, which Battelle encourages, means reaching out to kids at a younger age. “We are losing them early,” said Professor McEntaffer. “We want to interest them in science early. We have rockets and that’s easy to get people engaged in.”
The program is for Black students, Latinx students and others who are under-represented or come from a disadvantaged socio-economic status. “The program is accessible to everyone,” Professor McEntaffer said. “If they need access to a computer or monitors or whatever they need, we can get it for them.”
Battelle’s main philanthropic focus is centered on STEM education. Through its regional giving, Battelle supports programs such as RISE that have measurable outcomes and seek to bring more under-served students into STEM. “We intend to expand our STEM programming and be more creative with how we’re funding programs,” said Forest Banks, a Program Development Manager at Battelle who’s working with Professor McEntaffer. “This program is awesome, and we’re excited to be part of it.”
Dr. John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist, astronaut and avid supporter of the NASA suborbital rocket program, sees this pathfinding effort as a great way to excite the students to pursue STEM fields. "As a high school student, I loved launching model rockets leading me to studying physics and eventually to become an astronaut and go to space myself," Grunsfeld said. "The Penn State/Battelle collaboration will allow students to launch their experiment into space, what could be more exciting and inspirational than that?"
In early October, the students began 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.
Yannick Habiyaremye, a freshman, said he loves the project. “I wanted to get back into physics and astronomy because I enjoy learning about them,” he said. "I'm looking forward to completing the rockets."
The students will assist with integrating their payload into the main rocket assembly and prepare for launch operations. The rocket launch will take place at a missile range such as White Sands Missile Range, Poker Flats Research Range, or Wallops Island Flight Facility. Following flight, the payload will be recovered and Professor McEntaffer, the principal investigator on many such rocket flights, and his staff will guide the students through the analysis of their recorded data.
Professor McEntaffer acknowledges the difficulty of starting this program during a pandemic. Lab work will be done in a manner consistent with CDC guidelines including appropriate social distancing, use of face masks and limiting density of people within the lab space. The plan also calls for some of the students to attend the launch.
Banks and Battelle Corporate Engagement and Education Outreach Director Regina Schofield saw the value in this approach. “Working with engaged Battelle colleagues like Forest allows us to find regional staff who will support programs with strong outcomes that will enable us to reach our Blue Chip goal of reaching 1 million students in STEM by 2025,” said Schofield. “In our 2020 fiscal year, we supported 55 projects in the regional giving pool and reached 37,000 students last year with a budget of $835,000.”
Professor McEntaffer said he sees this first year as a “developing a cookbook,” then, “We will tell other universities that have rocket programs,” he said. “We also want to work with other institutions that don’t have rocket programs but can partner with us.”