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NASA Gives $1.4M for STEM Course Development at MSIs

College of the Desert (COD) and Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) are among five minority serving institutions (MSIs) selected to receive grant funding from NASA to develop or enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses through NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP).

NASA’s MUREP Innovations in Space Technology Curriculum (MISTC) awards totaling $1.4 million will help the MSI community colleges develop “crosscutting, pioneering new technologies and capabilities” to sustain the space agency’s work, according to officials.

Christine BarrowChristine Barrow

The schools receiving MISTC awards are Bronx Community College, College of the Desert, Los Angeles Pierce College, Passaic County Community College and Prince George’s Community College. Schools will receive up to $330,000 each and work with a NASA center or facility to achieve MISTC’s goals over a 15-month period.

Dr. Carl Farmer, director of the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program and co-investigator of the new NASA grant at College of the Desert, said the MISTC award will help continue the college’s initiatives to encourage underrepresented students who largely come from the Coachella Valley to consider STEM careers.

The college plans to use the funding to develop three integrated work elements in the physics curriculum. The first development will introduce and enhance student understanding of space technology in the field of entry, descent and landing (EDL) phases of space mission concepts through laboratory work that promotes hands-on learning.

“This course will be offered as an introduction to undergraduate research experiences for the students, which is generally accepted at our state universities,” Farmer said.

A second development will give six students an opportunity to participate in a summer internship at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where they will be exposed to real-world application of concepts learned in the EDL course.

The last development will focus on public outreach to K-12 schools.

“The importance of EDL will be stressed and future applications in the space field and possible job opportunities will be provided to the community through this program,” Farmer said.

Integrating EDL concepts into coursework at a community college is innovative and significant, he added, because it provides “students a potential transition point as they begin believing themselves to be scientists and engineers and that they can one day have a successful career at NASA, National Laboratories or in private companies such as Space-X.”

Over the years, COD – through partnerships with California State University at San Bernardino and grants from NASA and the National Science Foundation – has given more than 120 underrepresented students access to STEM research and summer opportunities.

“When students are able to first solve these types of problems,” Farmer continued, “they are sometimes amazed that they can actually handle a problem of this nature. Success of this [EDL] course at COD can lead to further development of courses of this nature throughout the community college system.”

Similarly, Prince George’s Community College will use its MISTC award to redesign and revitalize existing engineering programs in order to create a cohesive four-year curriculum for students, college officials said.

“Streamlining the curriculum, in partnership with four-year partners and NASA professionals, can reduce the time to degree by minimizing redundancy, concentrating on essential competencies and integrating the technology and equipment used in the workforce,” said Dr. Christine Barrow, dean of the STEM Division at PGCC. “This means students are better prepared for transfer to the four-year university, for NASA internships and success in the engineering workforce.”

Grant resources will support curriculum enhancement that includes new avionics technology content, in addition to the integration of open, free online textbooks, lab manuals and other course materials, Barrow added. “This reduces the cost of attendance, minimizes ‘transfer shock’ and increases the accessibility of the content for our students,” she said.

Leaders at the college note that both NASA and the college’s STEM division have prioritized diversifying the STEM workforce by increasing opportunities for underrepresented populations. PGCC regularly partners with the local school system’s Project Lead the Way engineering program and other industry partners to expand the STEM talent pipeline, Barrow said.

The engineering program is also majority-minority and reflects the demographic make-up of Prince George’s County.

Moreover, PGCC STEM students have engineering, physics and chemistry faculty such as Dr. Scott Johnson, Dr. Neeharika Thakur and Dr. Scott Sinex contributing to their success. Johnson and Thakur are former NASA scientists, and all three scholars are working with faculty from Howard University, current NASA scientists and industry professionals “to model meaningful collaboration and demonstrate its impact on curriculum innovation and the STEM talent pipeline,” Barrow added.

Students will be expected to cultivate their mathematical, coding and avionics competencies and gain proficiency in the software and equipment used by NASA and other industry employers.

NASA officials praise the partnership with the five MSI community colleges as a continuation of efforts to achieve space exploration goals while tapping into a diverse population of future workers.

“These cooperative agreement awards are an excellent example of a collaboration between MUREP and [Space Technology Mission Directorate] helping NASA continue achieving exploration goals while promoting STEM and engaging minority serving institutions,” said Jim Reuter, acting associate administrator for STMD.

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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