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Stella Garcia, provost of TSTC-Harlingen, and Joe Magruder, who works in the Governor's Office of Aerospace & Aviation, are pictured at the RGV Space Summit 2016.

HARLINGEN, RGV – With the Rio Grande Valley possibly developing an aerospace cluster built on the foundation of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, Harlingen CISD is preparing to launch an aerospace and aviation academy.

Harlingen CISD Superintendent Art Cavazos talked about the prospect after watching his students show great enthusiasm for a career in the aerospace industry at the recent RGV Space Summit, held at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen.

“We are right at the cusp of transforming our secondary learning experience for more relevant learning and we are moving forward with our model of a School of Health Professions, which will focus on the health industry and six programs of study. It is almost like an academy,” Cavazos told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We are now looking at carving out small learning communities at our high schools that will have academy formats. Without a doubt, as we listen more as to the opportunities involved with Space, we certainly can see in the near future looking into an aviation and aerospace academy because there are a lot of opportunities coming to this region.”

Cavazos pointed out that 90 percent of healthcare businesses are run by people other than doctors. “There is a lot of opportunity for careers in this area. This is the case with STEM. Not everyone is going to go to the Moon but it takes a big team to get you there. Let’s work together to create pathways for that.”

The RGV Space Summit was co-hosted by Harlingen Aerotropolis, TSTC-Harlingen, Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, and Harlingen CISD. The summit included lectures given by aerospace industry leaders to students from HCISD and TSTC-Harlingen, and a luncheon for community leaders. Cavazos said the summit was so significant for the Valley it could be labeled a moment in time.

“When you create these moments in time it sets the foundation for a movement. Our students were totally engaged today. They were super impressed with the tutors. It is these kinds of events, these moments in time, that spark interest in kids. We do not want to set any type of ceiling, just let the creativity occur. STEM is so critical. And you need the four C’s for the STEM fields – communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.”

Immediately after being asked by a reporter if Harlingen CISD would consider setting up an aerospace and aviation academy, Cavazos sent a text with this suggestion to Stella Garcia, provost of TSTC-Harlingen.

Like Cavazos, Garcia was thrilled to see the enthusiasm shown by students at the summit.

“Most people that leave the Valley would like to come back to the Valley, if the jobs were here. When you can see in your own backyard that these industries are here and that there is opportunity here, the excitement builds. We just have to create a stronger workforce, not only to recruit aerospace but other industries,” Garcia said. “The same thing is happening with wind turbines. People are seeing these turbines and thinking about it. What is this cluster going to bring? When we know this we have to create the right programs. People will start to connect the dots.”

TSTC-Harlingen is situated next to Valley International Airport and the luncheon for community leaders was held in a hangar that housed an old X-38 aircraft that NASA provided to the City of Santa Rosa. TSTC-Harlingen students are now working on restoring the aircraft to its former glories.

Santa Rosa Mayor Andres Contreras told the Rio Grande Guardian that students at his city’s high school are excited about an aviation and aerospace cluster developing in the Valley.

“Our students want to dream big. Events like this bring them closer to those dreams. They can see what is available, that the aviation and aerospace industries are so much closer to the Valley than they ever were before. I commend TSTC and all the other entities that have made today’s summit possible,” Contreras said.

NASA and the Rio Grande Valley

HCISD has about 18,700 students and TSTC-Harlingen has about 5,000 students. Some of these students were tutored at the Space Summit by NASA engineer Humberto Sanchez, a native of Harlingen. Sanchez told the Rio Grande Guardian that a “confluence of events and projects” were poised to transform the Valley over the next ten to 20 years.

“You now have UTRGV, the medical School, ULA, SpaceX. If Valley leaders think and act as one region, working together, they really can transform what the Valley looks like over the next generation. They are going to STEM-ize it,” Sanchez predicted.

“I can see the Valley leaders see this opportunity. They are saying, we have this once in a lifetime opportunity to change things in a big way. They want to take advantage of the momentum.”

Sanchez, who serves as education partnerships lead for NASA, said he gives tutorials similar to the one he gave at the RGV Space Summit about four or five times a year. “It is exciting to come back to the Valley and see these changes. And I see an opportunity for NASA. If this region does develop a lot of technical capabilities its universities can help NASA with its technology challenges. There are opportunities to collaborate,” Sanchez said.

Asked what advice he would give students, Sanchez said: “If I can do it, you can do it because I am not special.”

Asked what advice he would give community leaders, Sanchez said: “The Valley should have a vision of where it wants to be. In my opinion it should be more high tech, with more healthcare, more medical research, more bio-medical research and more engineering. If space commerce really is going to happen, the Valley can be at the forefront. Its universities and colleges can choose new degrees, such as systems engineering, human computer interface, materials world experts, 3-D technology.

“The Valley can definitely be STEM-ized because there is no doubt the human capital is here with these students. So, it is all about having a pipeline, creating a methodical and strategic flow of students into the STEM fields. The school districts and the community colleges and the universities need to be more integrated.”

Speakers at the RGV Space Summit luncheon included Joe Magruder, who works in the office of aerospace and aviation for Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, and Frank Espinoza, Texas AEP’s manager of community affairs in the middle and lower Valley.

Harlingen Aerotropolis

In his remarks, Espinoza focused on the potential of the Harlingen Aerotropolis, which comprises 480 acres of land adjacent to Valley International Airport.

“To many, the Harlingen Aerotropolis is just another field but to the right person it is a goldmine,” Espinoza said. “The reason I think it is a goldmine is because gold has to be mined before its value is realized. We believe we have a goldmine with the Harlingen Aerotropolis.”

Espinoza pointed out that in 2015, McCallum Sweeney, a major site selector firm, officially designated the Harlingen Aerotropolis as shovel-ready. “All the facilities a company would need to expand, gas, electric, water, telecommunications, roads, infrastructure, are already in place. It has direct access to Los Indios International Bridge on FM 509.  it is in close proximity to the highway system. It is close to the Port of Harlingen and the Port of Brownsville. With ULA and SpaceX nearby, this site is poised and ready to cater to the aerospace, aviation, and technology industries. Many would consider it a goldmine,” Espinoza said.

“The site may be empty now but it takes just one good prospect, just one and it can literally transform this region, bringing with it high-paying jobs, and years and years of economic development opportunity. AEP Texas firmly believes that, which is why our AEP economic development corporation out of Ohio hired an advertising firm to promote this site, nationally and internationally.”