USC Viterbi, nonprofit collaborate on STEM education

The engineering school aims to build a pipeline for underserved students in science and technology who will build and launch a rocket

May 31, 2016 Amy Blumenthal

Beginning this year, a cohort of top students from area community colleges will have an opportunity to participate in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering student-run Rocket Propulsion Lab (RPL).

The program is part of a new collaboration between USC Viterbi and nonprofit Base 11, an accelerator for the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce.

USC Viterbi and Base 11 are aiming at a common goal: building a pipeline for underserved students to pursue STEM careers and spur innovation.

rocket launch
RPL members ready their rocket for a shot at going to space. (Photo/Nadia M. Whitehead)

The collaboration, made possible by a gift from philanthropist Foster Stanback, will support the RPL’s efforts to be the first undergraduate team to launch a rocket into space.

Participating community college students will be full-fledged members of the RPL, collaborating on rocket technologies in the lab and traveling to desert sites to fire engines and launch rockets. In addition, during the summer months, participating community college students will take up residence at USC and conduct research toward building devices or other engineering objects, which may include working on small-scale application such as drones.

“We are thrilled with the Base 11 collaboration, which will help attract more students into engineering, particularly from underrepresented backgrounds,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “In particular, we are pleased that the students will be highly engaged in the fascinating and rapidly growing space industry. We look forward to the contributions from Base 11 students.”

Base 11 CEO Landon Taylor added: “The collaboration with USC is game-changing. Our goal is for high-potential, low-resource community college students to see STEM careers as highly lucrative and very cool. Tell me what’s cooler than getting the chance to build and launch rockets into space like Elon Musk?”

All hands on deck

The opportunity to work in the RPL has been transformational for several generations of USC Viterbi students, many of whom chose USC specifically because of the rockets.

“The knowledge, hands-on experience and confidence gained from RPL work has opened the doors for internships and permanent employment at rocket companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as space companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. We hope that the collaboration with Base 11 will extend this opportunity to community college students as well,” said Daniel Erwin, chair of the USC Viterbi’s Department of Astronautical Engineering and RPL faculty lead.

Space exploration

USC has a legacy of innovation in space exploration. Thought leaders, such the late Sol Golomb, have revolutionized space communications. The university’s researchers have innovated in spacecraft propulsion, space science, space environment and other astronautical areas.

USC Viterbi counts Neil Armstrong as an alumnus and is one of a core group of top schools with an astronautical program. The program has connections to pioneering space organizations via alumni who design and build rockets and space launchers, communications and direct broadcasting satellites, navigational systems, manned space vehicles and planetary probes.