Las Cruces – New Mexico State University's fledgling, but rapidly growing aerospace engineering program, gained approval in December to begin offering master's and doctoral degrees. The graduate program will accept its first students in fall 2010.
On Dec. 15, the New Mexico State Board of Finance awarded final approval for the program to move ahead, successfully closing a three-year approval process.
After spending 2007 drafting and perfecting a proposal for the advanced degree program, Tom Burton, mechanical and aerospace engineering department head, presented it to university officials. In 2008, the Board of Regents approved the proposal, thanks in part to the rapid success of the undergraduate program, which was approved in 2003 and began in 2006.
This year more than 60 entering freshmen declared themselves aerospace engineering majors - the largest year-to-year increase in the program's short history. Another 60 are expected in the fall, and an external study calls for a $1 million increase in the program to support students and hire six full-time faculty members. The program employs two full-time faculty members at present, with two more projected to start in the fall.
"This is an opportune time to introduce a graduate program in aerospace at NMSU," said Interim College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. White. "We have many strong relationships with the aerospace industry, NASA, White Sands Missile Range and the developing Spaceport America, where our research and students play an important role."
While the undergraduate program needed approval only through university channels, graduate programs must get the green light at the state level, through an extensive and detailed nine-step process that begins with the department head and academic dean and culminates, if successful, with the State Board of Finance for approval. On the state level the approval process for graduate programs requires an extensive external approval process through various bodies including the New Mexico Graduate Deans Council, the Academic Council, the New Mexico Higher Education Department, the New Mexico Higher Education Review Board and the State Board of Finance.
NMSU became the logical choice for implementation of the state's inaugural aerospace engineering program, in part because Gov. Bill Richardson signed legislation in 2006 that began construction of Spaceport America in nearby Truth or Consequences, N.M.; and in part because it could piggyback on the already well-established mechanical engineering program.
"It's already so close to mechanical engineering as a discipline," Burton said. "NMSU was already offering some aerospace content within the mechanical engineering major, so it was easily adaptable."
Despite current economic challenges, Burton is optimistic about the role of aerospace for the university and the state in general. He points out that despite the program's youth, it has already received an estimated $3 million in federal research grants and with the new graduate program will likely attract more.