CUNY York’s NASA Aerospace Academy gives kids free trips to the stars

Kids track the solar system.  Eagle  photos by Victoria Merlino.

Kids track the solar system. Eagle photos by Victoria Merlino.

By Victoria Merlino

A giant, nondescript inflatable dome, situated toward the center of the room, greeted visitors walking into CUNY York College’s main atrium this past Thursday. 

The plain gray exterior concealed something infinitely more interesting: the cosmos, witnessed by a gaggle of giggling children. 

The inflatable is the StarLab, a portable planetarium, and the children are part of the NASA Minority University Research and Education Project Aerospace Academy at York College. The free program is designed to offer education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, to minority communities who have been traditionally underrepresented in those fields. 

High schoolers learning about physics through building catapults.

High schoolers learning about physics through building catapults.

Nazrul Khandaker, a professor at York and the director of the college’s NASA MUREP Aerospace Academy, calls the program a “STEM buffet,” where kids can learn about robots, coding, drones, the solar system, stargazing and more through fall, summer and winter/spring sessions. 

Khandaker has worked for NASA programs at York for almost 16 years, and he has been the principal director of the program for the last seven years. Since NASA program began at York in 1999, under different names, it has produced five former students with Ph.D.s, according to Khandaker. 

“It is almost a catalyst for them,” he said of students in the program. “Some of the things they get to know [about STEM] through us. It’s more accessible to them than in a school setting.”

“I’m very proud of what I do with the students,” he continued. Khandaker said the current session held about 300 kids from elementary school to high school. 

Students involved with the program were busy at work as the Eagle toured the site. In one room, kids built Lego Mindstorms EV3 robots, with the intent to battle one another’s bots by the end of the week.

“My parents were looking for a hands-on program that involved both math and science because they’ve always seen that I have so much potential in math and science; I’m very good in both subjects,” Ariel Campos-Gonzales, 12, told the Eagle, stepping away from helping his team construct their bot. Campos-Gonzales goes to a middle school in Hillcrest. 

“It’s actually a very helpful program for kids that love math and science, or sometimes kids that don’t like math and science,” he said, noting that the teachers there were knowledgeable and constructive. 

Middle schoolers tinkering with robots that they plan to battle   with in a competition .

Middle schoolers tinkering with robots that they plan to battle with in a competition.

In another room, high schoolers constructed catapults, as well as rockets they planned to launch the following day.  

Viva Sachdev, who will be a 10th grader at an Ozone Park high school this fall, said that she had named her rocket Mission VIV, or Very Intelligent Victory. 

“This program is like my father’s dream. He always wanted me to work with NASA,” she said. 

Sachdev wants to be an engineer or a scientist, and has dreams of going to MIT or Columbia University when she graduates. 

The program has put down strong roots, and some of the educators and aides working there were once participants themselves. 

Sol De Leon Cruz was in the program for four years before coming back as a teaching assistant, which she has been for the past three years. 

“I became interested in STEM because of this program,” she said. She now studies computer science and biology at Hunter College in Manhattan, and hopes to move on and receive even more advanced degrees, eventually wanting to work on robotics as it relates to everyday life, such as appliances.  

Kids insider the StarLab.

Kids insider the StarLab.

This year, AT&T, Con Edison and National Grid assisted York’s Aerospace Academy with its funding, allowing it to purchase new equipment. “AT&T is focused on this kind of innovative education,” Robin White, who manages AT&T’s relationships with nonprofits across New York City, said to the Eagle, with the company donating millions over the past five years to STEM education programs throughout the city. 

While the program had its last session for the summer on Friday, some kids will surely be clamoring for more. 

“The first day, he said, ‘Today’s the best day of my life. And this week is going to be the best week of my life,’” Andrea Brown, a mother of a 7-year-old boy in the program, said, laughing. “And I said, ‘Okay.’”