Local university working to build future in aerospace

Sep. 19—ASHLAND — A breakout session during last week's Appalachian Regional Commission conference touched on a fast-growing industry that a small local college is dominating.

Representatives of Morehead State University and Touchstone Energy Cooperatives provided a glimpse into Kentucky's current success and future endeavors into aerospace and the avenues they're taking to build up future leaders in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Panelists included Dr. Jay Morgan, president of Morehead State University, Dr. Ben Malphrus, Dr. Jennifer Carter of MSU's space science and STEM + eXcellence and Brad Thomas with Kentucky's Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.

Morgan opened the panel, discussing that while Morehead State is rural, it's become a leader in the field by investing in STEM curriculum to compete in today's global — and galactic — market.

Thomas spoke more of the need to enhance student's readiness to enter into one of Kentucky's most slept-on industries: aerospace.

With 100-plus aerospace-related facilities, which employ more than 20,000 Kentuckians, students graduating from Morehead State and other schools with degrees in aerospace engineering, no longer have to move away for successful careers.

With the state investing billions of dollars into the industry, the investment money is returning through booming economic development and increased quality of life.

Just last year, Kentucky exported $10.5 billion in aerospace products and parts for global airlines and aircraft manufactures.

According to Thomas, Kentucky builds some parts that are only made within the state, ensuring that while planes and aircrafts can be constructed elsewhere, the demand for upkeep and part replacements, ensures the longevity of Kentucky's position within the aerospace industry.

Morehead State capitalized on the need for aerospace-related careers and saw STEM as a program to get behind, so the campus erected a multi-million-dollar Space Science Center to serve as the home base for its future space engineers.

The facility is state-of-the-art with classrooms, labs, a digital planetarium, an antenna test range and anechoic chambers that mimic the environment of space.

"We train students in aerospace engineering, but we're space-systems engineering so we're looking at space-side of aerospace," Malphrus, the executive director of the Space Science Center, said, adding programs allow for students to build small satellite systems and utilize tracking dishes to provide space-tracking services for NASA and other organizations.

"We've been really fortunate to have been recognized worldwide in small satellites," Malphrus said.

Since the creation of the center, MSU has been part of launching five NASA-funded satellites into space including the Lunar ICECube mission which explores deep space and lays the foundation for future planetary missions.

With these impressive achievements and state-wide demand, Morehead State expects this program to grow and Carter elaborated on how the school was appealing to younger generations.

With the program consisting of more than 30% female students, Carter spoke about the high school program, SpaceTrek, for young girls to attend to show that their future in male-dominated STEM is just as guaranteed.

"The goal is to empower young girls to follow their dreams," Carter said.

Some of the most impactful moments, according to Carter, is the words that come from these girls after their program completion.

"I have always been the pretty girl at school. But today, I'm the smart girl, too," Carter recalled one student saying.

"When you know you're the smart girl, you make decisions," Carter said.

"This program, SpaceTrek, changes lives. It changes trajectories. It puts that 38 percent female enrollment at MSU. It places those women in those careers Brad (Thomas) was talking about," Carter said.

In addition, Morehead State offers a STEM eXcellence program within the Craft Academy for Excellence in Science and Mathematics — a program for K-12 students to expose students earlier to the world of STEM.

During one program course, Carter said students were assigned to search for pulsars — the remains of stars that have gone super nova.

Students within the course conducted research to search for the signs of pulsars, and Carter said 3 students found previously undiscovered pulsars and became the astronomer of record.

"As a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old student, that's pretty amazing," Carter said.

Carter said students in the program are exposed to equipment at an earlier age so by the time they're attending college-level courses, they're already familiar.

"This is where you get excited," Carter said, "That is where you decide, I like Morehead State University; I like this electronics and I think I can be an aerospace engineer."

Additional programs launched by Morehead State is a Robot Gladiator League Melee competition, where area high schools design and build their own robots to showdown with other school's designs and battle systems.

"It is deep-rooted mathematics and physics and engineering design process in a really fun experience," Carter said, "They say, well, 'I know I can do this.'"

(606) 326-2652