Aerospace Program Offered in Antelope Valley

Aerospace Program Offered in Antelope Valley
Grad student Michael Gorilla is an active duty Air Force Research Laboratory engineer.
Dr. Hany Farran teaches a master's course in aerospace structures at the University Center in Lancaster.
Crystal Klemmer, associate aerospace engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, and David Ho, Deputy Branch Chief of Airborne Instrumentation, attend a night class.

Normally when Professor Hany Farran teaches one of his engineering classes, he gathers up his class materials and walks down a hallway  sometimes a flight of stairs is involved. One night a week however, this professors commute to a classroom is a 200-mile-roundtrip drive to Lancaster, Calif., where Cal Poly Pomona recently launched a master's program in aerospace engineering.

The terrain Farran traverses on his way to teach is much like the history of the aerospace industry: full of peaks and valleys. Robust growth characterizes the industry now. In fact, during the past four years, the U.S. aerospace industry has steadily increased sales, ending 2007 with sales nearing $200 billion, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. This prosperity, coupled with an aging workforce, has created a drastic need to prepare the next generation of aerospace leaders. It's critical that someone helps fill those shoes.

Cal Poly Pomona's College of Engineering is addressing this need by taking rigorous courses to one of California's bustling aerospace communities. Nestled in the Antelope Valley 70 miles north of Los Angeles, Lancaster and Palmdale comprise a desert community that relies heavily on Edwards Air Force Base and loads of military and private aerospace development facilities. Major companies such as Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, all have facilities in this arid valley. In short, this is a community where rocket scientists reside. And it's a community with limited higher education options.

“I'm in this program because there is an actual professor, and it wasn't online or telecommuting,” says Michael Gorrilla, an active duty Air Force Research Laboratory engineer who lives in Lancaster. “The location is perfect.”

All of the graduate students currently enrolled live within miles of the Lancaster University Center, a city-funded complex that offers critical classroom space for universities to offer courses. Other universities offer satellite programs at the center; however, this master's program is the only opportunity for students to take aerospace classes from a professor, in person.  

“We believe face-to-face teaching provides a much higher quality education,” says Ali R. Ahmadi, chair of the Aerospace Engineering department at Cal Poly Pomona, who also teaches some of the classes in Lancaster.

Student Crystal Klemmer, an associate aerospace engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, Space and Missile Propulsion Division Liquid Rocket Engine Branch, goes straight to class from work.

“We all live close by,” she says. “This is very convenient for us.”

Classes began in the fall, and currently, there are about a dozen students. Though low in headcount, the caliber of students is high. Each graduate student is already employed as an engineer; most of them work at Edwards Air Force Base either as civil servants, like Klemmer, or active duty personnel.

Farran enjoys teaching students who have already gained considerable accomplishments in their careers. He enjoys it so much that he isn't bothered by the drive.

“These students are bright engineers,” he says. “They ask insightful and challenging questions. It's engaging.”

Ahmadi adds, “The real world has a maturing influence on our students. This is a focused, good bunch of students.”

This program will provide the graduate students with credentials often needed in their fields to qualify for more advanced work and management positions. Student David Ho, who is Deputy Branch Chief of Airborne Instrumentation, which is a test lab for jet engines, says the degree will make him eligible to be an Air Force test pilot.

“Since the Air Force offers tuition assistance, and I need this to be a test pilot, I thought 'I might as well go through the program,' ”  Ho says.  

Ho may sound modest, but this program cannot be completed on whimsy. Professors such as Farran offer rigorous course work. The study plan offers one to two courses a quarter, four quarters a year. For the working students, two classes a quarter are plenty, they say.

This is the second generation of an off-campus master's program of this nature. From 1984 until 2002, the College of Engineering offered a comprehensive program in aeronautics in El Segundo, Hawthorne and Pico Rivera, another robust aerospace community in Southern California.  That program was also offered in the Antelope Valley from 1997 until 2002.

“At one point, we had 60 plus graduate students. However due to market place changes, that program did come to an end,” Ahmadi says.

Transformations in the industry and demands of its workforce can be seen in the evolution of the two masters programs.

Some of the students we are serving now are working with rockets and spacecraft, so we needed to offer astronautics in addition to aeronautics, says Ahmadi, adding that it is the combination of astronautics and aeronautics that build the discipline of aerospace.

“This program is a service to the aerospace industry and the graduate students who live far from our campus,” Ahmadi says. “We hope to offer this program indefinitely.”