ORONO, Maine — It was about two years ago that Dana Humphrey was struck by a comment he read in a newspaper suggesting the University of Maine System start teaching aerospace engineering.
Humphrey, dean of the University of Maine College of Engineering, tracked down the source of the comment, which came from David Rubenstein, an independent aeronautical engineering consultant based in Yarmouth. The UM dean drove down to meet Rubenstein for coffee and to talk about the potential for enhancing the school’s offerings.
Several years and a $196,000 NASA grant later, UM has its aerospace engineering program — a three-course concentration within the mechanical engineering major — with Rubenstein as professor.
Humphrey said the program is the first of its kind in Maine and is “an exciting opportunity” for a state that ranks 49th and 51st, respectively, per capita nationally in awarding of undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees.
“Probably around two-thirds of the states have some sort of a program in aerospace, and virtually every state is able to turn out the engineers their economy needs at a rate that’s greater than Maine,” Humphrey said. “For Maine to be able to propel its economy forward, we really have to advance our ability to graduate more engi-neers. That’s part of what I’m working on.”
The concentration probably won’t attract many nonengineering majors, Humphrey said, but the benefits to the state include putting more aerospace engineers into the work force.
That’s what appealed to the Maine Space Grant Consortium, Maine Aerospace Consulting LLC and the Maine Aerospace Alliance, which have partnered with UM on the concentration.
“What we’re trying to do is build the program for the future work force and so the university can become more competitive, and also to help as an opportunity to help increase the skill set of the existing work force in the Maine Aerospace Alliance,” said consortium executive director Terry Shehata.
The Westbrook-based alliance, which operates under the umbrella of the Maine Manufacturers Association, also will receive some of the grant money for scholarships and administrative costs.
Known as MEAA, the alliance is a group of 64 Maine Manufacturers Association member companies, which each do some amount of work for the aerospace industry, mostly as second- or third-tier suppliers to larger companies which in turn supply industry giants such as Boeing.
“There are a lot of high-tech, high-paying jobs in the industry,” MEAA director Ron Fish said. “You need to increase the work force and you need to get a highly educated work force. … It’s fair to say that if you want to increase your aerospace work, which is what the members of the alliance are trying to do, it wouldn’t hurt to have aerospace engineers on staff.”
The UM aerospace classes began in the fall 2009 semester with a course in astronautics, which Humphrey said is the study of spacecraft orbits. The next course in aeronautics, or aircraft flight, will be offered this fall, and the third course, spacecraft flight dynamics, will be available either in spring 2011 or fall 2011.
There were 15 students in the astronautics class last fall, including three engineers at Bath Iron Works.
In addition to the undergraduate concentration, the courses also will be offered as a graduate certificate and a program through Southern Maine Community College.
Humphrey envisions interest in the concentration could extend beyond Maine’s borders, too.
“I expect that in the course this coming fall there will be students at the University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine, as well as practicing engineers all taking the class,” Humphrey said.
Rubenstein is teaching the classes through UM’s distance education program. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and Pennsylvania State University, according to his company’s Web site, Rubenstein has worked for major defense and aerospace contractors including Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin), Ray-theon Space and Missile Systems Design Laboratory, and Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.
Humphrey said he wanted to meet Rubenstein after seeing a quotation in the Portland Press Herald that either UM or USM should start some kind of aerospace engineering program. Rubenstein himself developed the courses and is now an adjunct faculty member.
“I read this and I’m going, who is this guy,” Humphrey said. “I went down over a year ago and had coffee with him and basically, that got us on the path that ultimately allowed us to help us do this. If we hadn’t had him, this wouldn’t have happened. He made a good case for why this is important for Maine and in my role as dean I listened to that.”