Preparing Our Students to Take On the Universe: It IS Rocket Science!

Article by Jessica Attas, featured in the first quarter edition of the 2018 Greater Waco Business Magazine


Fascination with space and the universe has long been a part of our national culture and leadership in research and exploration a part of our national identity. As science evolves, knowing what we used to consider “the great unknown” has never been closer. The commercial space sector is a unique, diverse and critically important domain for our country’s vital interests. Texas is, in many ways, already a leader in this sphere. Yet as we consider how we can position the U.S. to be a leader in the world in aerospace, and Texas a leader in the U.S., one of the most important ways we can do so is by ensuring we have the skilled workforce required. From engineering talent to skilled technicians to computer programmers to welders and machinists, existing and potential businesses will need access to diverse skill sets to launch their businesses forward.


Following the state’s challenge upon communities to align education offerings with industry workforce needs, our local education partners have all risen to the call. Each is doing exciting things to incite in area students an interest in aerospace, and preparing them for future study and work in the field. This IS rocket science, and Waco is doing great things to ensure we are producing, attracting and retaining the best talent in Texas to support our commercial aerospace industry.


We’ve asked leaders from several of our educational institutions to share with us how they are helping to produce the talent Waco will need to support continued growth in our aerospace sector. Read on to learn about the impact each is having in their own unique way!


McLennan Community College

The engineering program is unique from other two-year programs. McLennan Community College is proud to offer:



  • Student-driven research projects that have resulted in student-published works, admission credentials to four-year research universities, and great résumé material.
  • Travel courses like Mars 101, where a crew of students and faculty members live in a simulated Mars habitat in Utah conducting research and working as a team on the “red planet.”
  • Individualized instruction with small class sizes, so your professors know you by name.
  • Opportunities to participate in co-ops, internships and mentoring with engineers working in McLennan County at companies like SpaceX and L3 Technologies.
  • A semester-long independent research program to delve into subjects not normally covered in a typical community college classroom.
  • An affordable higher education with excellent, experienced engineering professors.
  • Transfer partnerships with Texas Tech University, Tarleton State University, and the University of Texas at Arlington to ensure classes transfer and apply toward a four-year degree.

Most MCC engineering students continue their education well beyond their associate degree. For example, Dr. James Grisham earned a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering in 2017 and recently landed his dream job at Blue Origin in Seattle. Colin Mocek earned a degree in aerospace engineering in 2016 and is working for Textron Aviation in Wichita. For more information about all of McLennan Community College’s engineering degrees and scholarship opportunities, contact or call Dr. April Andreas at 254-299-8130.


Texas State Technical College

Texas State Technical College (TSTC) was established more than fifty years ago, with the vision of fulfilling then-governor John Connally’s prediction that it would become “the most sophisticated technical-vocational institute in the country.” The challenges of the 21st-century global economy are many, but TSTC is proud to partner with business and industry – as well as government agencies and other educational institutions – to help meet the high-tech demands facing our great state.


TSTCAs Chancellor Mike Reeser writes, “TSTC graduates are highly valued by business and industry for their work ethic, knowledge and workplace skills. Whether students are considering upgrading their skills, or just starting out on a new career path, one of the many TSTC campuses is a great place to prepare for a great paying job in the vibrant Texas economy.”


In 2012, TSTC opened the Colonel James T. Connally Aerospace Center. The 82,000 square foot building houses state-of-the-art classrooms, labs, simulators, as well as a public airport terminal. In fact, with over 100,000 takeoffs and landings in 2017, the TSTC Waco Airport is the largest airport in the U.S. owned and operated by an education institution. Further, that airport is the second highest in terms of economic impact for general aviation in Texas.


The Connally Aerospace Center houses a diverse offering of the aviation and aerospace programs, providing a robust aviation and aerospace focus, with five aviation programs and multiple tracks within those. In 2017, TSTC had 520 aviation and aerospace students amongst its diverse programs.


  • Want to be a pilot? In 2017, TSTC had over 150 students enrolled in its Aircraft Pilot Training programs, ranging from fixed-wing (single- or multi-engine) airplane pilots to rotary-wing (helicopter) pilots; flight instructors; agricultural spray pilots; corporate pilots; or airline pilots. TSTC pilots placed first in the nation amongst two-year colleges and seventeenth overall competing against four-year universities at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association competition.
  • Interested in mechanics for the future? TSTC offers both Powerplant Technology (engine and engine components) and Airframe Technology in its Aircraft Maintenance Technology program.
  • Like order and want to make sure the rights planes are at the right gate at the right time? TSTC’s Aircraft Dispatch Technology program trains students in coordinating logistics of aircraft fleets.
  • Air Traffic Control? Be a part of the FAA’s Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative! TSTC offers one of only 30 active programs in the U.S. and the only in Texas.
  • Need an Avionics Expert (or want to be one)? TSTC offers a program in Avionics Technology, equipping students to maintain, repair and service aviation communication and navigation systems.

In addition to the skills for aviation and aerospace businesses, TSTC is also home to the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Here students have an opportunity to engage in meaningful science, technology, engineering and math activities to ignite student’s passion for space. Whether through inspiring today’s youth through the Challenger Center, or preparing tomorrow’s workforce through its programs, TSTC is a valuable and vital partner in the efforts to ensure Texas has the aerospace workforce we need for the future!


Click here to hear from Carson Pearce with TSTC. He explains why it’s an exciting time to be in the aerospace industry and how you can become part of the aerospace workforce–


Baylor University

In the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Baylor University, faculty and students work daily in the aerospace field researching and making discoveries that will positively impact the industry in the future.



Several professors in the Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments have research projects to positively impact safety, performance efficiencies, cost effectiveness and more. These projects range from icing on wings and turbines and composite materials for jets to radar to gas turbines, quiet propellers, and high-definition wireless in-flight communications systems. Dr. Stephen McClain, associate professor of mechanical engineering, hopes that the outcomes of his research will impact the aviation industry. “My ultimate aviation goals for the research are the same as for any engineering project: make the products safer, more energy efficient, and more cost-effective,” he said. “Three of my projects that are directly aviation industry-related are safety issues. Airframe icing, cold-soaked fuel frost on wings and engine icing are all serious safety concerns for the aviation industry. As the physics of each situation are better understood, the objective is to enable designs that are safe while meeting the weight and fuel consumption requirements of future-generation aircraft.”


While McClain is working to make safer elements for the aviation industry, undergraduate students involved in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Aero student organization have the opportunity to design and build a radio-controlled (RC) aircraft from scratch each year and compete in an international competition.


From learning the basics of aviation to making improvements in the aerospace industry, “…our engineering programs are tremendous,” says Dr. Kenneth Van Treuren, interim department chair, associate dean of research and faculty development, and professor of mechanical engineering. “Of course, you can go to any of 40-plus universities in Texas for an engineering degree, so why come to Baylor? Because of our Christian mission and heritage. We offer outstanding engineering programs in the context of Christian principles. That’s who we are. We help make students’ education meaningful and prepare them to face the world.”


Waco Independent School District

Space, the final frontier. No matter how old or young, all agree that space is fascinating. Just the idea of space travel and exploration sparks excitement and curiosity in nearly everyone. Fascination with space and rockets is alive and well with local Waco ISD students, and WISD is tapping into that excitement and curiosity to help nurture future rocket scientists.



Fueled by SpaceX’s presence in our backyard, students at both University High School and the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy (GWAMA) are lining up to enroll in advanced science courses centered around rocketry. Students may simply be interested in rockets, or they may have an eye towards pursuing an engineering career.


When GWAMA was established, the business advisory board wanted to ensure that students were engaged in problem solving, teamwork and design, and especially learning that those lessons were relevant to local industry needs. Being exposed to these experiences is vital to the training of our manufacturing and engineering workforce. Students in all GWAMA academies take rocketry as their senior science, working on mixed academy teams to design and build rockets, with each academy bringing different elements to the team for a full cross-course learning experience.


Also in WISD, University High School has a longstanding engineering program. To bring more focus and interest to engineering, two courses in rocketry science were recently added. As a part of the NASA-sponsored program Systems Go, students travel each spring to Fredericksburg to participate in a statewide rocket launch. Students in the first rocketry course launch a rocket that is designed to travel one mile high with a one-pound payload. Then, in the second course, they work to launch a rocket that is designed to break the sound barrier. This exciting event is the highlight of the year for UHS science students.


The foundation of the curriculum for rocketry is based on engineering principles and the constructivist approach to learning. Students are not given kits, but rather are challenged to design, create and test rockets. For their first rocket, students are given very basic and limited information about rocket design. From successes and failures, additional rockets are created. Using this “trial, error and learn” model, the goal of the final project is reached. While not all rockets are a success, students gain valuable knowledge and experience. WISD is proud to help develop the early engineering foundation, as well as, critical thinking and tenacity in local students that will help them be a part of the aerospace workforce of the future.


Harmony Science Academy

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Harmony School of Innovation – Waco, a public charter school, boasts a strong focus on engineering and robotics competitions at its school, with eight competition teams competing in FIRST Lego League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competitions. The competitions allow students to build high-level, real-world skills that will benefit them and their pursuit of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) college majors and careers in the future. The students who participate learn skills to problem-solve, design, build, program, manage projects, work effectively in teams, present their work professionally, and much more.


Many of the students aspire to work in the aerospace industry, whether it be designing plans to build a rocket, creating and building components benefitting the aerospace industry, or programming launch and landings of rockets to earth. The skills students are building today will prepare them for the high demand of jobs of our STEM workforce. The students are gaining and understanding the importance of their efforts by interacting with mentors from STEM careers who come to speak with them and help with their competitions and extracurricular work. The competitions they compete in are sponsored by SpaceX, NASA, and others in the aerospace industry because there is an understanding that the students competing are building high-need skills and will become skilled enough to work for them in the future.


Tiffani Cortez, the school’s engineering teacher, has set up a partnership between several of her female students, SpaceX, the Mayborn Museum, Baylor, Texas A&M, TSTC, Cameron Park Zoo, the Girl Scouts, and a few other entities to host an event at the Mayborn Museum called “Girl Day!” in February to celebrate what was formerly called “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day” that will allow girls and boys to gain knowledge of the engineering industry and mingle with female engineers to understand what they do and the path they took to get where they are today.


–Want to hear more from Tiffani Cortez? Click here to see more on what Harmony Science Academy is doing to foster aerospace technologies in our youth.–


Rapoport Academy Public School


Rapoport Robotics Team-cmykRapoport Academy Public School, celebrating a decade of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in 2017, has remained true to STEM education and entrepreneurship – the core of its mission to prepare all students for college, career and life. Rapoport’s STEM program expands the public charter’s mission into dedicated classes and teachers spanning pre-kindergarten through twelfth grades. STEM is far more than the words themselves; it involves art, soft skills for the modern learner, career and trade skills that guide confident problem solvers, project management, and the authentic connection between the classroom and the real world.


Not only was Rapoport’s Meyer High School the first school in Texas to receive the T-STEM and Early College High School designations, but its students also formed the first team in Central Texas to compete in the national competition FIRST Robotics. Today, Waco has seen an explosion of competitive robotics teams and even hosted a regional event attracting competitors from across the country. Rapoport’s Raven Robotics team has been sponsored by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) since 2015 in an effort by the team to combat the traditional stereotypes of culture and gender in STEM careers and to promote and advocate diversity.


Intentional planning and innovative practices help students develop skills needed as they prepare to enter the future STEM workforce. Rapoport specializes in letting industry input and student interest drive the projects to hone those skills (don’t be surprised if you see drones flying high).


Click here to hear from STEM and CTE Coordinator, Clay Springer with Rapoport Academy. He explains the robotics competitions and how students are learning skills that will equip them for a career in aerospace and more!–


All in all, there is much being done across the board with our local educational partners. Although the U.S. space workforce remains one of the largest in the world, the U.S. civilian space workforce has declined by more than 17 percent since 2006. As this burgeoning industry continues to thrive, Waco is committed to staying ahead of the game and applauds our partners in education for ensuring we have a workforce ready to step up and fill the emerging aerospace sector and our economy.



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Check out this edition of the Greater Waco Business magazine online,

featuring articles all about the aerospace industry here in Waco, new

Chamber members, member news and more!