Aero/Astro struggles to engage undergrads

Jan. 14, 2013, 1:59 a.m.

See below for correction 

In 2011, doctoral student Ivan Ravlich chose to accept his offer of admission to Stanford’s aerospace engineering program, which, according to U.S. News and World Report, ranks first in the field. He turned down second-ranked MIT and Caltech.

“I had some family friends in the aerospace world at Boeing and [Houlihan] Lokey, and they talked around to different engineers,” Ravlich said. “Their consensus was that Caltech and MIT are very, very good at the technical side of things…but Stanford is where the leaders and the innovators are cultivated from.”

Even before Silicon Valley transformed Stanford into a bridge between academia and the private sector, Stanford was making advances in space technology. Bradford Parkinson Ph.D. ’66, currently professor emeritus in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (Aero/Astro), went on to invent the Global Position System (GPS), and fellow Professor Emeritus Bob Twiggs co-invented CubeSats, miniature satellites employed by the U.S. Department of Defense and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) in 1999.

Henning Roedel, another doctoral student, agreed with Ravlich.

“In terms of alumni contacts at aerospace companies, there’s always a Stanford alumni who is vice president, president or somewhere way high up,” he said.

Scott Hubbard, one such ‘high up’ in the field, acknowledged Stanford’s “strong connection to Silicon Valley.” Hubbard, a consulting professor, is the former director of the NASA Ames Research Center and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA’s highest honor.

“We’ve been very successful as a graduate program – our students have been placed not only at big companies but at startups as well,” he said.

Yet while the graduate program is highly lauded, undergraduates often find it difficult to access the department.

David Gerson ’14 is impressed by the graduate students who have gone on to create startups such as Skybox, but says that Stanford’s Aero/Astro Department does not do a good enough job of engaging the undergraduate community.

“Undergrads who are interested in Aero/Astro are not invited to any events, nor are they on any email lists,” Gerson said. “When people ask me what I am majoring in, I have to explain that Aero/Astro is an actual undergraduate major. It’s very small and few people know it.”

In fact, the department offers undergraduates an interdisciplinary major in Aero/Astro. Undergraduates obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering. The department also offers undergraduate minors.

Amr Mohamed ’16 won the 2012 YouTube Space Lab competition by exploring the effects of microgravity on zebra spiders. He came to Stanford with a passion for space, but found the resources similarly lacking.

The Aero/Astro major did not have a table at majors night, which was really disappointing,” Mohamed said. “They don’t seem to be reaching out to us.”

Professors in the Aero/Astro department expressed a desire to engage with more undergraduates, but said the department lacks the faculty to fully handle both graduate and undergraduate interest.

Sanjiva Lele, professor of Aero/Astro and Mechanical Engineering, said the number of faculty in the Stanford Aero/Astro department is relatively small compared to other University departments which have both graduate and undergraduate majors.

“It’s a decision that the department made when it was established 50 years ago. The feeling was it would serve the aerospace community better by focusing on the graduate program…and contributing to training of people for the aerospace industry, Ph.D.s and so on,” Lele said.

“In our department…undergrads can shape their own major, can come in and can get an undergraduate degree in Aero/Astro,” Hubbard said. “But we just don’t have the faculty and staff to support a larger program.”

But students in the field believe its barriers to entry extend beyond uninvolved Stanford undergraduates.

“Everyone seems to be intrinsically interested in space, but not actively pursuing it,” Roedel said.

Mohammed pointed to the capital-intensive process of starting a space company as a dissuading factor. The amount of money can be daunting – SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk invested $100 million of his own money – and Roedel added that the competition can be intimidating as well.

“Honestly I think [the reason] is a little bit of fear,” Roedel said. “The perception of NASA is that it’s the best and the brightest, and it’s humbling to try and go for something like that.”

Student-led organizations attempt to fill in the support gap for interested undergraduates. The Student Spaceflight Initiative (SSI), founded by Gerson, attempts to create a stronger and more consistent dialogue between the undergraduate community, graduate students, faculty and aerospace industry professionals.

“The real aim was to try and create a group that would allow anybody interested in space to talk to each other,” Gerson said. “Allow undergrads to meet grad students, to get involved with professors labs, and to work on their own projects, and to then really connect everybody with what’s going on in Silicon Valley.”

“We want to [make] the vision of space a reality for more people at Stanford,” said Ravlich, who also leads SSI’s initiative to promote space-related discussion. “This is a blossoming field where there is plenty of room for growth.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Stanford, MIT and Caltech’s Departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ rankings by the U.S. News and World Report. In fact, Stanford is ranked first while MIT and Caltech are tied for second. The Daily regrets the error. 

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