USC Professor Luhar Partners with STEM Academy of Hollywood

(L-R) Principal Paul Hirsch and Professor Mitul Luhar

Aeronautics Engineers in Hollywood’s STEM Academy Help Students Aim High

Until the 1990s, the aerospace industry in Los Angeles dominated the local economy and fueled national prosperity; since Pentagon budgets were cut, however, the region’s aerospace workforce has fallen by 66%. Consequently, not many high schools in Hollywood – or even in all of Los Angeles – have guidance from aerospace engineers, but Principal Paul Hirsch has attracted two experts while introducing a new aerospace course at the STEM Academy of Hollywood.

USC Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering Mitul Luhar has been on the school’s Advisory Board since 2015. He has hosted STEM Academy students to his research lab for hands-on experiments on aerodynamic flow, and he drops in to the Academy campus when possible to encourage students presenting their work (shown above with Principal Hirsch). At an Advisory Board meeting, Dr. Luhar met Julian Lewis, a retired Lockheed Martin engineer participating in EnCorps’ STEM Teachers Program, whose goal of mentoring urban high school students led him to volunteering to teach engineering at the Academy while earning a teaching credential.

With the input of Luhar and Lewis, the STEM Academy gains a practical, real-life college and career pathway in aerospace. Mr. Lewis brings experience from the industry and Dr. Luhar immerses students in cutting-edge research.

Dr. Luhar’s commitment to STEM outreach goes beyond inviting students to his lab, as important as those visits are to building awareness of the societal benefits of research. The professor will also offer summer “externships” to teachers over the next five years to join his research team for a spell, then create lesson plans for their own students to use during the school year based on the teachers’ experiences in the lab. The STEM Academy teachers will bring back to their classes new skills and broader understanding of the applications of aerodynamic experiments. Dr. Luhar also admits high school students into his lab over the summer as part of the Summer High School Intensive in Next-Generation Engineering (SHINE), a USC Viterbi School of Engineering program in the Viterbi Adopt-a-School, Adopt-a-Teacher (VAST) Program.

Planes — and now drones – fascinate many students, but students often need guidance to realize that their passion for flight could lead to a college and career pathway in aerospace. Dr. Luhar’s participatory approach builds students’ and teachers’ abilities to use the engineering design process as they apply their math and physics skills to their design challenges. Mr. Lewis adds his perspective honed on wide scale design and production of airplanes plus his own transition in a large urban high school to recognizing his abilities and potential in aerospace. Together, these experts help make the physics and math in the STEM Academy textbooks into something far more adventurous, practical, and downright fun.

With the rise of SpaceX and other private aerospace companies leading innovations in fuel, design, and production, Southern California is beginning to rebuild aerospace employment – and the alumni of the STEM Academy of Hollywood graduate with quite a boost thanks to the contributions of Mr. Lewis and Dr. Luhar, the vision of Principal Hirsch and their own persistence to recognize that math and physics can get them farther than they might have ever imagined.

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