Out-of-this-World Opportunities

Rutgers is lead institution for New Jersey Space Grant Consortium

On Friday, July 19, NASA astronaut and Rutgers School of Engineering alumnus Robert Cenker (MS’77) shared his experiences as a Challenger space shuttle crew member with a standing room only audience at Rutgers as part of a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

Cenker’s talk was sponsored by the New Jersey Space Grant Consortium (NJSG), which, as NASA’s educational branch in New Jersey, works to advance National Space Grant program objectives. It was just one of the many statewide NJSGC-sponsored programs that are spearheaded by Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Haim Baruh, who has served as the NJSCG director for ten years.

“NASA realizes that participation in science and technology activities isn’t what you’d expect from a developed nation and they want to change that by providing educational and inspirational activities that get students hooked on science,” says Baruh. “The NJSCG facilitates that.”

While Rutgers – which has been a consortium member since NJSGC’s inception in 1991 – currently serves as its lead institution, Baruh’s mission as director of the prestigious organization is broadly based. “My role is to use funds given to us by NASA to promote STEM education throughout the state,” he explains. “Our catchment area is the whole state – not just Rutgers.”

This support for the consortium’s 16 affiliate institutions ranges from co-op internship programs with New Jersey corporations as well as summer internships at the Goddard for Space Study (GISS) to funding for curricular and lab development and undergraduate and graduate level fellowships. “We have a number of programs to benefit minority students that enhance diversity activities at Rutgers and other institutions.”

Baruh notes that the NJSGC supports Rutgers programs such as the School of Engineering’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF), which offers financial and academic assistance and support to talented low-income New Jersey residents. Rutgers’ TARGET program, which is encourages middle and high school students’ awareness and interest in STEM subjects, also receives NJSGC funding, as do annual on-campus summer and academic year conferences. “These conferences give students a valuable opportunity to showcase research, make presentations, connect with audiences, and become better speakers,” he says.

NJSGC also supports a Rutgers Ambassador program, where a select group of engineering students make presentations and serve as mentors to potential applicants,” he says. May 2019 graduate Kristene Aguinaldo gave a presentation on the program at the NASA Mid-Atlantic Space Grant Consortia Meeting that was held in Charleston, West Virginia in September.

Classmate Alexander Sanducu presented a history of aerospace development at Rutgers at the conference. He also discussed the development of the first high-powered rocketry team, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Rutgers Rocket Propulsion Lab, (AIAA RRPL). “I outlined the skills learned in applying ourselves to such a large-scale engineering challenge – and all the growth that comes with it,” he recalls.

Sanducu, who is pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, was honored to be able to present alongside NASA personnel. “AIAA RRPL is aiming to become one of the premiere rocketry organizations in the United States. Sharing our history, successes, and failures allows other prospective groups to learn from our team,” he says.

For Baruh, his service as the NJSGC director is rewarding. “I like the outcomes of the program. The biggest benefit is the opportunities we create for students – over 90 percent of those who participate in our programs continue onto careers in the STEM workforce or go to graduate school,” he says. “We’re making sure the pathway is open.”