There are 27,000 job openings nationally for high–level aerospace and defense workers, and it would be hard to find anyone more passionate about helping El Paso area school students land some of them than UTEP’s Ahsan Chouduri.
He’s the former chair of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at El Paso and the founding director of the NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research. The center started in 2009 with an initial $5 million grant from NASA.
“The primary reason we wanted to have the program is we knew there was going to be a big aerospace and defense workforce shortage,” Chouduri said. “We wanted to give our talent in this region access to an aerospace and engineering education. We strategically built a program that will serve our region.”
The research center’s home is at the El Paso County Airport in Fabens.
There wasn’t much to see in October 2016 when UTEP President Diana Natalicio announced that the little airport would be the site of the Technology Research and Innovation Acceleration Park.
But Choudhuri said a lot of the work has been done at the airport in two years, including the transformation of the hangar into a high-tech laboratory and rocket-building workshop.
UTEP set aside $28 million initially to establish a facility to build and test rockets along with a satellite tracking station.
Plans also call for developing a second site in Tornillo for drone flight-testing.
UTEP has a portfolio of more than $300 million in grants to pay students for their work and research and to build new facilities.
But, he said, what’s been missing has been the ability to create employment opportunities to let UTEP graduates stay in El Paso.
To help students with abilities they may not realize they have, Chouduri has been working with school districts to create academic programs. NASA invested $800,000 to help things along.
“We work with nearly all the major school districts now and have expanded to Fabens and Clint because that’s a big underserved area,” he said. “We have student’s go through a 36-hour curriculum provided by NASA.
“That’s a whole lot of hands-on activity focusing on real aerospace and engineering programs.”
This summer, nearly 300 high school students from all over the county were paid stipends to participate in intense engineering and technology camps.
There have also been special efforts to reach students in high schools that hadn’t participated in UTEP’s programs, including Bowie, Burges, Riverside and Fabens.
“We gave hardware to all four schools and they recruited students to build satellites that we hope one day to launch into space,” Choudhuri said. “Each school came up with a different payload. Some are imaging, some measure solar winds – each school has their own.”
The program is also reaching into elementary and middle schools.
“We also do a Family Cafe that means bringing parents and caregivers so we can actually engage them on how to really mentor their kids for a college career as well as an aerospace career,” he said.
When the UTEP center offered an informational program at Fabens High last December, 1,000 students and parents showed up.
“We were blown away by the interest,” he said. “We need this talent. If we don’t take care of them, our global superiority is going to be challenged.”
But, Choudhuri said, too many students with ability never graduate from college.
“UTEP is not reaching out enough, so I’m spearheading that effort to reach out and start working with schools,” he said. “Our goal is very simple – that every kid growing up in El Paso and Juárez neighborhoods should have access to aerospace study if they want to.
“If we train them, they can compete with anybody in the world.”
Since 2010, more than 250 UTEP engineering graduates have found jobs in aerospace and defense fields, he said. Most have gone to NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Blue Origin.
“Right now, there are 27,000 positions open – all well-paid but very difficult positions to fill,” he said. “This is a domestic talent workforce that you cannot bring in from the outside. It has to be homegrown talent.”
Choudhuri said when he became chairman of mechanical engineering at UTEP in 2010, 400 students were enrolled in mechanical engineering.
“This year, it’s 1,500, so there’s been an impact,” he said. “But we need more.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.