The initiative that’s helping change the face of aerospace
Backed by a federal grant, MSU Denver’s new SpaceTech Scholars program aims to diversify the industry’s workforce.
For the majority of the aerospace industry’s existence, its workforce has been a fairly homogenous landscape. According to the 2021 Aerospace and Defense Workforce Study, only 25% of employees identified as female, with Black and Hispanic professionals making up only 10% and 9% of the workforce, respectively.
Making note of the industry’s underrepresentation, Metropolitan State University of Denver created its SpaceTech Scholars program to help support underrepresented students and diversify pathways into the industry. The program has received support from a five-year, $2.9 million Department of Education grant for Hispanic-Serving Institutions.
“(Aerospace) has traditionally been a small, niche industry,” said Jeffrey Forrest, Ph.D., chair and professor in the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department at MSU Denver. “There has been a perception that to get into this industry, you must have a certain background and experience.”
Opportunities are growing and expanding well beyond becoming an astronaut, and the time is right to move the needle on the industry’s diversity problem. “The traditional shell of what you need to look like and the background you need is changing,” said Forrest.
Brian Ysasaga, an MSU Denver junior in Aerospace Systems Engineering Technology, has taken advantage of the SpaceTech Scholars program.
“I’ve always had an obsession with space, but I came from a small town in Texas where there were no nearby programs to pursue,” he said. “I came to Denver originally to get a pilot’s license and then learned you could major in aerospace at MSU Denver, and I started dabbling in the idea. Things kind of snowballed from there, and I’ve gone all in ever since.”
Ysasaga landed in the right place for someone with his interests. Colorado has the second-largest aerospace economy in the U.S., and nearly 250,000 jobs are supported by the state’s aerospace companies, according to the Colorado Space Coalition. The SpaceTech Scholars program is developing a pipeline to these employers for MSU Denver students. The program also provides undergraduate-student support and partners with K-12 organizations to help get students interested early.
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Ysasaga learned of the program through the University’s Brother to Brother (B2B) initiative. B2B empowers male-identified students of color through leadership development, social integration, academic support and career preparation.
“The B2B program has been incredibly supportive to me, both emotionally and financially,” said Ysasaga. “I’m a first-generation college student and don’t have a relationship with my dad, so they’ve helped me figure it out. They also helped me feed into programs like the SpaceTech Scholars.”
Ysasaga is well on his way to a career in his desired field, as he’s already working with nearby Lockheed Martin Corp., an aerospace-and-defense contractor. “SpaceTech helped me figure out more or less what’s available to me from here,” he said. “I’m hoping that after I graduate, I can gain my clearance and stay with Lockheed Martin as a system-integration-and-test engineer.”
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This summer, the SpaceTech Scholars program will host a five-day summer camp experience called VUELO, which stands for Visiting Undergraduate Exploratory Learning Opportunity. The camp is geared toward high school juniors and seniors, as well as incoming University students interested in pursuing careers in aerospace technology and operations. It’s also specifically designed to support historically marginalized groups such as women, students of color, low-income students and first-generation students.
As someone who has benefited from SpaceTech Scholars, Ysasaga will serve as a mentor during the summer camp. “I’ve made some arrangements to take the students to Lockheed Martin so that they can see what’s here and what their career choices might be,” he said.
With guidance from SpaceTech Scholars staff members — Roberto De Mata, Kalyn Bonn and Lisa Ratliff — the program has been set up to serve students of different academic backgrounds by meeting them where they are. “We start them with a primer on math that shows how it relates to the industry,” Forrest said. “If they’ve never had a solid introduction to math skills or have struggled with it and feel like it’s a career barrier, we help them over that hurdle.”
From there, students take specific science courses and learn the jargon of the aerospace and aerotech industries. “Students can also apply for hands-on internships through the program,” Forrest added. “I like to think we’re building a robust portfolio of activities and opportunities to help this group of students get behind the fences of career opportunities.”
Learn more about MSU Denver’s Aviation and Aerospace program.