January 9, 2020: Construction continues on the expansion on the DuVal High School addition, which will house the Academy of Aerospace Engineering and Aviation Technology. Photo by José Umaña/The Prince George’s Sentinel.

LANHAM — DuVal High School’s Academy of Aerospace Engineering and Aviation Technology (AEAT) began as part of an ongoing effort by Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) to prepare students for postsecondary success and expose them to STEM-related career fields. Fast forward five-and-a-half years later, and the program remains a critically important component of the county’s Secondary School Reform initiative.

The AEAT, or aerospace program/academy, is a highly specialized program to prepare motivated students for careers in STEM. The rigorous, four-year program provides highly specialized college preparatory courses and offers an innovative problem-based curriculum and real-world application of math, science and engineering.

As outlined in the program description, students belonging in the academy are trained to develop essential 21st-century skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration needed to be successful in STEM fields and several non-STEM-related fields.

Jeremy Kiggundu, a senior, said when he first heard about the program around seventh grade, he took an interest in it. When he came on campus for an orientation and tour of the aerospace program right before his freshman year at DuVal, Kiggundu said he was drawn to it instantly.

Seeing the software that was available – from the flight simulators to the wind tunnels – was part of what piqued his interest. As his fourth and final year in the AEAT academy concludes in the next few months, Kiggundu reflected on his experience in the program.

In Kiggundu’s aeronautics applications course from his junior year, he and his classmates used aerospace concepts to design and build a drone.

“Being in the program has prepared me, not just to enter the aerospace field, but the STEM field. There’s a lot of opportunities available through the program,” Kiggundu said, also mentioning his internship with an applied physics class at John Hopkins University.

“Throughout the program, we focus on aspects where we’re not just preparing for what’s next (in) college, (but) we’re preparing for what’s next after we leave college,” he said.

“The features, the technology we have here, the support we have here, it’s really prepared us to take a new outlook on STEM, and our college and career life.”

Kiggundu said he aspires to become an aerospace engineer. He said that he had taken an interest in a few STEM-focused colleges and universities, namely Yale University or Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

DuVal Principal Pamela Smith, a former coordinating supervisor with the program, said the program partners with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) for curriculum development.

Also, students and instructors in the program partner with officials from the nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt which sponsors different programs and events centered around aviation and aerospace.

To get into the program, students must apply; but before an application is filled out, they have to meet specific criteria.

A student’s PSAT score and GPA will determine whether he or she is eligible to apply for the aerospace program at DuVal. Moreover, students residing anywhere in the county are welcome to join the program, according to Smith.

Up to 150 students are accepted into the AEAT academy per year, said Smith. When the program first began in the 2014-15 school year, about 70 students were enrolled.

Some of the courses offered as part of the aerospace program include fundamentals of aerospace, engineering communications, aviation history and development, meteorology, aerospace technology, air traffic control systems, air traffic control operations, aeronautics engineering applications, astronautics engineering applications and aviation management.

Graduates from the AEAT program have gone on to Harvard, the University of Maryland-College Park and Penn State University, Smith said.

Christina Howland is the coordinator of the program, but because she is out on medical leave, Brian Taylor, DuVal’s assistant principal, is filling in. As the fill-in coordinator, Taylor oversees activities and functions related to the AEAT program.

When aerospace students graduate, they are given special cords to signify completion of the required coursework and research that the AEAT academy consists of. Also, seniors write a five-chapter thesis and present it as a research project at a symposium toward the end of the school year.

Successful completion of the AEAT program sets students on a path to pursue a variety of related college majors, such as mechanical engineering, aeronautical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, aviation management, astronomy, atmospheric and earth sciences and physics.

Program participants are also encouraged to go after internships either during or after high school.

Students who graduate after taking courses offered by the aerospace program can expect to work in various capacities – some of which are an aerospace engineer, aircraft mechanic, general/operations manager, systems engineer, electrical engineer, air-traffic controller, software engineer, aircraft engineer and a pilot or flight engineer.

“Even if a child decides not to stay in the STEM field, they have gained the skillset as far as being able to work in a collaborative group, having deadlines, statistical analysis, critical thinking skills that will take them into any field,” Smith said of the advantages of AEAT.

The school’s annex building houses the AEAT program at the moment, but the DuVal community is awaiting the opening of the new aerospace and aviation building designated for the program.

Construction on the new aerospace facility on DuVal’s campus is almost complete, Smith said. The building will have two aerospace classrooms to house specialized courses offered in the program and a large multipurpose lab for aviation maintenance purposes, flying drones, and the use of other equipment related to aerospace.

The ribbon-cutting for the building does not have a set date yet, but DuVal students and faculty can expect to go into the building by “the start of next school year,” Smith said.

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