New SSL Undergraduate Engagement Group and Recent Activities/Achievements

“The University’s fundamental missions are teaching, research and public service” (source: UCOP). Although SSL excels at research, and through those discoveries, public service to a large degree, SSL’s role in and greater potential for contributing to the mission of teaching has been somewhat underappreciated on campus and beyond. But over the last year or so, SSL’s John Bonnell, Joel Krajewski, Ilia Roussev, Abhi Tripathi, Phyllis Whittlesey, and Dan Zevin realized each others’ shared interests in raising SSL’s standing in undergraduate education, and thus, came together in May, 2023, to form a new SSL Undergraduate Engagement Group. The following is a summary of some of our activities and achievements to date (both independent and shared):

Undergrad Opportunities at SSL: Although SSL has been engaging undergraduates in various capacities probably since its founding, there has never been any real effort to coordinate and track these activities to date. Through modest California Space Grant Consortium (CaSGC) funding, we are now doing a much better job of raising awareness of these opportunities, tracking them, and getting more SSL researchers, engineers, and staff to offer them. For example, since our tracking and other work began, we’ve noticed significant increases in the number of undergraduates working with SSL teams. For instance, in Fall 2021, there were 53 undergrads at SSL (34 direct hires and 19 URAP students). In Fall 2022, that number jumped to 103 (60 direct hires, 34 URAP students, 1 volunteer, plus 8 students getting class credit through programs such as the Data Science Discovery Program). As such, many SSL researchers, engineers and others deserve a huge THANK YOU for creating opportunities for undergrads at SSL. Nevertheless, there are still many more undergrads who would like to take part in SSL’s activities, and therefore, we will continue to find ways we can increase research and other SSL positions for undergraduates.

Undergrad Community Building: Early on we discovered that many undergrads at SSL didn’t realize there were other students here also doing similar work, nor did they feel there were additional support services if they needed them. Thus, we hired a part-time undergrad to serve as SSL’s Undergraduate Community and Opportunity Builder. The position is currently held by undergrad Catherine Dang, who among other things, helps organize the new SSL Undergrad Seminar Series (seven to date), highlights current SSL undergrads on our website and Instagram account, manages our undergrad listserv and Slack channels, circulates a regular End of Semester (EOS) survey, keeps the lists of current SSL undergrads current, promotes SSL undergrad opportunities at campus job/research fairs, and is currently forming an all-undergrad advisory committee so that SSL’s undergrads also have a say in our group’s planning. In future news stories, we intend to highlight some of the emerging trends from our EOS surveys and other undergrad input, as well as the corresponding actions taken.

Supporting UCBs Undergrad Aerospace Orgs: For years now, a large UC Berkeley (UCB) student contingent has been hungry for more training and preparation for the ever-growing aerospace industry. Frustrated with no official undergraduate aerospace major on campus (though that’s now changed! – see below) or other such opportunities to fulfill this need, they took it upon themselves to get organized and run their own programs. There are now four primary student aerospace organizations on campus – Space Technologies And Rocketry, Space Enterprise at Berkeley, Space Technologies At Cal, and more recently NewSpace@Berkeley (plus another we are told that is still forming). With membership numbers around 100 students or more for each, they are entering and winning major competitions, taking part in real-world space missions, offering classes, and generally helping to train the next generation of space entrepreneurs. Together, they also run an annual Space Tech Symposium for which SSL will soon be a regular partner/sponsor. In addition, the new Undergrad Engagement Group is supporting each of these student organizations in a variety of ways, including by providing access to SSL’s facilities (e.g., for vibration tests, etc.), assisting with new funding and mission proposals, giving advice and reviews for competition and mission requirements, and even some funding (via CaSGC) for equipment purchases and competition or other related travel.

Collaborating with the New Undergrad Aerospace Major Faculty: With the aforementioned rocketing desire for aerospace education and training at UCB, the College of Engineering (COE) officially launched a new undergrad aerospace engineering major in the Fall of 2022. Various SSL staff have been advising COE on this initiative for some time now, but a clear role and responsibilities for SSL have yet to be formalized. Thus, we recently met with the new major’s Faculty Director Panos Papadopoulos, and after some consensus building, we have decided to begin our collaboration by designing a new elective course for the eventual juniors and seniors within this major who will need to meet a number of upper division requirements, but who will also undoubtedly have great interest in space-related careers! John Bonnell and Phyllis Whittlesey are leading this effort, and we aim to launch the new course in Fall 2024. We hope that additional opportunities to support and collaborate with the new aerospace major will also emerge as our talks with Professor Papadopoulos and his colleagues continue.

Supporting the ASSURE REU Program: Although run by another team with very specific timelines, student recruitment goals, and other objectives, the Undergraduate Engagement Group also regularly supports and contributes to the efforts of the annual ASSURE REU program at SSL, which for some time now has equally contributed to SSL’s overall mission to “Train, educate, and mentor the next generation of space scientists, engineers, and staff in a supportive, inclusive, and collaborative environment where they can realize their full potential.

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