One of the biggest threats to our nation’s global competitiveness is our inability to tap the full breadth of our diverse talent pool for participation in the aerospace, defense, energy, and other STEM industries. We have an aging workforce that doesn't reflect the changing demographics of our nation, and we have not built adequate opportunities and pathways for traditionally underrepresented communities who are our future workforce to access employment in these industries. Compounding this talent crisis is that too many of our engineering graduates and technicians are not equipped with skills that align with industry needs. The Aerospace Center and our sister center, the W.M. Keck Center of 3D Innovation, offer a solution to these challenges through a student-centered research model unlike any other in the nation.
The Aerospace Center’s research programs exist as a vehicle for the social and economic mobility of the students who join our team as research assistants. Over the last decade, the Aerospace Center has placed more than 800 of our graduates in high-paying careers in the aerospace and defense workforce including NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin.
UTEP is open access, R1 institution, and the students that we employ at the Aerospace Center as research assistants reflect the demographics of the community that we serve. Our students are 80 percent Latino, two-thirds come from families who make less than $37,000, and half of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Twenty-nine percent of our students are female, which is much higher than our peer institutions, however, we won’t be satisfied until 50 percent of our research assistants are female.
It is our student-centered model that makes our graduates highly sought after by NASA and our industry partners. Most of our students have to work while going to school, and because we want that work to contribute to their future careers, we hire them as research assistants. Fifty percent of our research assistants are undergraduates while most other universities limit these opportunities to master's and Ph.D. students. Student classroom learning of theory and practice is integrated with industry-aligned skills development in our research labs in an iterative Design-Build-Test Cycle made up of multi-disciplinary teams. Our research portfolio investigates many of the emerging opportunities and challenges in aerospace, defense, and energy today. Our digital tools, facilities, and equipment are expansive and reflective of industry trends. Student teams routinely engage with industry and agency partners through research, mentoring, or by presenting to them through tours that they lead through our labs or at our annual Southwest Emerging Technologies Symposium. It is this combination of intentional focus, hands-on learning, resources, and engagement opportunities that contribute to our student’s success upon graduation.
We have expanded our focus to include developing the middle-skill workforce that is in high demand in aerospace, defense, energy, and advanced manufacturing. In 2020, we worked with Western Technical College to develop the Aerospace and Defense Technologies Associates Degree Program. Students from that program also intern at the Aerospace Center for critical skills development.