“The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs.” – Cicero
Space and social work are unlikely bedfellows. But not so in Houston, a city known for both innovation and its innovators. Located in the heart of Space City – Houston’s most recognizable nickname – the University of Houston thrives as an engineering, technological and innovative epicenter, a mark of academic excellence that both enhances and owes much to NASA’s legacy. UH continues to fuel and enrich these industries with groundbreaking, multidisciplinary programming and graduates poised to assume leadership positions in myriad fields. In a city and University full of innovation and collaboration, a social work professor and alumnus works to unite science, engineering, secondary and university education with philanthropy and community engagement. Larry Hill (Ph.D. ‘11) has taken the lead in inspiring a new generation of Space City’s youngest engineers to reach for the stars, literally.
Hill was drawn to UH in 2006 not for its reputation in engineering or physics but because of its Ph.D. program in social work. Eight years later, Hill is still on campus and working as a research professor in the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW). With expertise in community engagement and currently supporting 26 diverse projects around the globe, Hill sees his primary role as a facilitator.
“Working from the provost’s office and the GCSW, I mobilize resources, interest and involvement in projects that create significant impact in communities with the greatest needs,” Hill said.
Addressing Community Needs
One of Hill’s first projects engaged residents of Sunnyside, one of Houston’s oldest communities that has experienced numerous socioeconomic issues including poverty and unemployment. In 2009, as an adjunct professor, Hill created and began teaching Interdisciplinary Community Development. From this course emerged an idea that helped the University secure $75,000 in American Recovery Reinvestment Act funds to launch a pioneering economic development and academic support initiative dubbed Green for Sunnyside. The program’s objective has been to build stronger levels knowledge and breakthroughs in job creation and decreased economic marginalization of impoverished communities.
Hill challenged his students, and the University, with a primary issue, ‘How do you create a program that addresses environmental issues and socioeconomic issues at the same time?’
After brainstorming and discussing several ideas, Hill and his students arrived at a unique solution – they encouraged Sunnyside youth to explore alternative energy through designing and constructing solar-powered doghouses. Equipped with seed funding, energized students and a target community with considerable needs, the program launched. “It was a crazy idea,” said Hill. “It had never been done before. [The class] loved it. They jumped all over it and started to put together all the details.”
Bringing a Crazy Idea to Life
Hill’s Interdisciplinary Community Development students began developing an eight-week program that would introduce Sunnyside youth to architecture, weatherization, energy efficiency, alternative energy and multiple career pathways through the construction of solar-powered doghouses. Each was equipped with a rechargeable battery, a thermostat, a fan and LED lights. Among the program’s initial community enrollees were a single mother and her four children. Through Hill’s and his work-study students’ guidance, the children designed and built five solar-powered doghouses that were auctioned at community events. All proceeds were returned to the family. Meanwhile, their mother excelled in the green jobs training at SER Jobs for Progress, an organization that provides education, training and employment services to communities in the Texas Gulf Coast Region. A $3,500 adjunct teaching investment by the GCSW has yielded more than $500,000 in grants and in-kind support for the Sunnyside community.
“Success is not an outcome, it’s a process.”
The success gained from merging social work with alternative energy provided a similar opportunity with aerospace. After Green for Sunnyside concluded, the oldest doghouse designer asked Hill for a letter of recommendation to apply to Booker T. Washington High School for Engineering Professions (BTW-HSEP) in the Independence Heights neighborhood of Houston — a neighborhood with a per capita income of $12,500.
A New Challenge
Once he enrolled at BTW-HSEP, the young student, Angelo Lindsey, introduced Hill to Nghia Le, who runs alternative energy and rocket design, construction, launch and operation programs at the school. Le’s rocketry program immediately sparked both interest and familiarity for Hill. He grew up hearing about space exploration from his parents, who worked in the space industry for more than 30 years, on projects including the Space Shuttle Main Engines and the International Space Station.
“The project is amazing,” said Hill. “I look for projects that are outside the box and can address social issues. There’s really nothing like this program. At the center there is something that has never been done, which is for high school students to launch a rocket to a height of 100,000 feet. That’s something that adults do. That’s something that engineers do. Schools in impoverished areas don’t do that. They do a lot of great things, but they don’t do that.”
Launching a Rocketry Program
The rocketry program at BTW-HSEP is part of SystemsGo Aeroscience, which began at Fredericksburg High School in Fredericksburg, Texas, and developed a rocket design curriculum that is now used by schools across the nation. The program is endorsed by NASA, certified by the Space Foundation and enjoys the support of industry and government partners such as Boeing and SpaceX.
At BTW-HSEP, rocketry students go through multiple building levels, including “one mile, one pound” and transonic. After completing these two levels, they enter the high altitude program that ultimately leads to students launching their self-designed and constructed rocket at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
“It’s a very challenging program for students,” Le said. “The whole rocket program consists of learning how to design and build the smallest rockets to the largest rockets that can be built.”
BTW-HSEP graduate, former SystemsGo participant and UH student Glenda Reyes was so inspired by her participation in the project, she returned to her high school alma mater to assist Le’s current students with their rockets. With direct support from the University and work-study funding, Hill recruited Reyes to work as a project director for the launch program, thus realizing his top priority of placing UH workers in the community. “The rocketry program changed my life,” said Reyes. “I learned so many skills, not just engineering. Now, I mentor students so they can value what the program is about. That’s what is so important to me.”
Le sees collaboration, both in general and with UH, as critical. Hill is the key to this collaboration; whether by providing a work-study position that allows Reyes to mentor students at BTW-HSEP, or commissioning a group of Bauer College of Business students to develop and implement marketing strategies for the program, he continues to bridge University innovation with community need.
The Meaning of Success
From Hill’s perspective, the students at BTW-HSEP are learning different ways to define success. One of his favorite quotes comes from the autobiography “Up from Slavery.” In one of the book’s pivotal moments, Booker T. Washington wrote, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” Hill has given this concept a great deal of thought in his role as a facilitator responsible for helping youth such as the Lindsey family, in challenged communities, achieve outcomes beyond what they may have dreamed possible.
On July 30, after seeing their launch date pushed back, the team from BTW-HSEP got their chance at White Sands. Unfortunately, due to a faulty valve and no time to attempt a fix, the students were unable to launch. While certainly a disappointment, Hill pointed out, the rocketry program and the students who are a part of it achieved success throughout the year. He challenged the students, many of whom returned home disappointed, to think of their experience as part of the process of success, which includes overcoming obstacles. Hill mused, “We’re already looking forward to next year’s launch! Success is not an outcome, it’s a process.”