It’s quickly apparent when you drive onto the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville that you have entered a place serious about academics, research and student success. As an illustration, the name of the road into the main entrance is Knowledge Drive.
Just a short distance beyond that entrance is a directional sign that leads you to several locations on the campus — the Engineering Building, Von Braun Research Hall, the Optics Building followed by the Materials Science Building and Propulsion Research. In that first minute of the drive onto campus a visitor is acquainted with the nature of UAH.
This institution of higher learning is unlike any other university campus in Alabama. Nearly half of UAH’s graduates earn a degree in engineering or science. Much of that is dictated by the Huntsville-Madison County economy.
“It’s incumbent upon UAH to recruit the best students possible to fulfill the advanced workforce needs of our community,” said Dr. Bob Lindquist, who is the vice president of Research and Economic Development and is also serving as the interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. “The federal agencies at Redstone and the hundreds of companies in Cummings Research Park rely on UAH to supply smart workers who are prepared to make immediate contributions to their success.”
UAH students have impressive academic records. Of the freshman class that enrolled in the fall of 2020, more than half (52.1%) achieved an overall high school GPA of 4.0 or higher. Their average GPA from high school is 3.88. The average ACT score of a UAH freshman last year was 28. Only one other state university scored that well. Thirty-nine percent scored 30 or above on the ACT.
These students flock to UAH to position themselves for exciting, challenging and impactful careers with high wages. Redstone Arsenal employs 46,000 workers and more than 80 percent of those employees have a four-year degree and many of them earned advanced degrees. There are more than 320 companies, 26,000 employees and 13,500 students in Cummings Research Park, and the number of college graduates at those companies is even higher, approaching 90%.
Location. Location. Location.
Some may call it destiny or luck, but local folks call it visionary thinking by community leaders and their support of forward-thinking ideas by American rocket pioneer, Dr. Wernher von Braun.
“The classic economic development model that has proven successful across the country includes a partnership of government, industry and academia,” said Erin Koshut, director of Cummings Research Park. “Huntsville has had the good fortune of visionary leaders and opportunities that helped cultivate what we have today.”
As it has turned out, UAH is the anchor tenant of Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second-largest university-related research park, according to the Association of University Research Parks. Just a mile from the campus is the main gate of Redstone Arsenal. This proximity fosters partnerships between the university and the federal agencies on Redstone as well as among the companies in Cummings Research Park, just as envisioned by Dr. von Braun.
During Dr. von Braun’s address to the Alabama Legislature to encourage the creation of the Research Institute on the UAH campus, he told that legislative body: “‘It’s the university climate that brings the business. Let’s be honest with ourselves; it’s not water, or real estate, or labor, or power, or cheap taxes that brings industry to a state or city. It’s brainpower.”
The biggest beneficiary – UAH students
Prospective students choosing to enroll at UAH receive a world-class education in the classroom, but they gain other advantages as well. They can immediately get involved in hands-on research even as a freshman and the university works closely with the federal agencies and corporations to develop experiential learning opportunities through internships and cooperative education opportunities.
This added experience provides UAH students a keen edge in the job market. And the numbers provide the proof. More than 75% of UAH students choose employment in Alabama following graduation from UAH. And, it doesn’t hurt that Huntsville was recently named the third best city to live in America by U.S. News & World Report.
Another draw is that UAH students are among the highest-paid following graduation, according to several sources. Payscale reports UAH graduates have the No. 1 ROI for both in-state and out-of-state students. Smart Asset calls UAH the No. 1 Best Value College in Alabama in 2021.
Research intensive university
The other benefit that UAH provides to Redstone Arsenal and Cummings Research Park is basic and applied research. When the UAH Research Institute opened in 1962, the mission of UAH’s Research Institute on day one was to provide research in technical areas encountered at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and with the Army’s missile defense programs as well as expand and strengthen the university’s graduate education programs, a vision advocated by Dr. von Braun.
Today, UAH has six highly ranked research areas, according to the National Science Foundation. The highest-ranked discipline shouldn’t be a surprise – federally financed aerospace/aeronautical/ astronautical research. That program is ranked sixth in the United States.
Other top programs include: atmospheric science (10th), computer and information sciences (11th), astronomy (14th), economics (15th), and industrial and manufacturing engineering (17th). Also, not surprising is the university’s ranking for NASA R&D (13th) and the Department of Defense R&D (26th).
UAH has served as an intellectual resource for the Huntsville-Madison County region since its first classes in 1950. The campus has entered its eighth decade for academic support in the community and next year the seventh decade milestone will be reached for research. It is a long-standing partnership that is showing no signs of abating.
“We view our role for academic and research support of Redstone much like the motto, ‘This We’ll Defend,’” Dr. Lindquist said. “As the global landscape changes and as threats evolve, and as space exploration’s future missions and programs evolve, we will be there proving leadership to adapt our research enterprise and academic offerings to fulfill the needs of our many partners.”
While research, engineering and technology were not prevalent in UAH’s earliest days, that changed in the early 1960s as the Space Age unfolded for America and Huntsville.
Marshall Space Flight Center Director Dr. von Braun encouraged the growth of science and engineering programs at UAH and he advocated the establishment of the UAH Research Institute. He also encouraged community leaders to create a research park adjoining UAH where the university could support the research activities of the corporations as well as develop an advanced workforce.
Today, UAH has more than 80 agreements with industry on cutting edge research and technology development that leads to improved and new products, and that technology transfer is channeled through UAH’s technology-based business incubator, the Invention to Innovation Center, which contributes to the region’s entrepreneurial econsystem. The campus has more than 200 other research collaborations with federal and state agencies.
Add 2,000 highly prepared graduates to the region’s advanced workforce then one can understand why UAH’s economic impact totals more than $615 million every year.
“This particular model of how UAH as a research university complements and supports Huntsville’s knowledge-based economy was jump started in the 1960s and has evolved quite successfully into the 2020s. There is no reason to believe the success of UAH and its partners won’t continue to be defined by this model for the next 60 years,” said Dr. Lindquist.
Ray Garner is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News.