Aerospace Engineering major Ryan Shields, who participated in StellarXplorers Space STEM Program from the Air & Space Forces Association, poses with teammates. Aerospace Engineering major Ryan Shields, who participated in StellarXplorers Space STEM Program from the Air & Space Forces Association, poses with teammates.
Ryan Shields (third from right) and teammates from the rocket club at Oakton High pose with one of their model rockets. (Photo: Ryan Shields)

Aerospace Engineering Major Gets Ready for Launch With ARC Support

Story by Jon O'Neill
Jon O'Neill

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Aerospace Engineering major Ryan Shields found his passion for rocketry by accident, and an ARC scholarship is helping him pursue a path to the stars.

As a musician and a competitive swimmer for the better part of his life, Ryan Shields knows the benefits of a disciplined approach to practicing.

However, it was a practice that he decided to skip that would help put his life on a new trajectory, a career arc he is now pursuing as an Aerospace Engineering major in the renowned program at Embry‑Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach Campus.

“I was supposed to be going to swimming practice that day, but I really didn’t want to,” said Ryan ('27). “So, I hid out and I watched a YouTube video of someone making a remote-controlled plane from cardboard and there was just something about it, and I was like, ‘I have to do this, this is my thing.’”

Although Ryan said his first attempts at creating cardboard airplanes tended to catch fire more than they flew, he had found a passion and it later blossomed fully when he joined the rocket club during his junior year at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia.

Through the club, Ryan took part in the American Rocketry Challenge and ended up with a college scholarship that is helping him pursue his dream of “building spaceships” by attending Embry‑Riddle.

What is The American Rocketry Challenge?

The American Rocketry Challenge gives nearly 5,000 high school students in the U.S. the chance to learn by designing, building and launching model rockets, a process that helps solidify their STEM skills and provides hands-on engineering experience.

The process, which leads to a nationwide competition, allows participants to solidify their STEM skills, provides hands-on engineering experience and ultimately helps some with their college tuition.

“Getting involved in the competition helped me realize that I wanted to be an aerospace engineer because before that I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do after high school,” Ryan said. “I probably wouldn't even be at Embry Riddle if I hadn't done the competition.

Discovering a Passion for Aerospace Engineering

Born into a military family, Ryan has lived in several places, and it was actually in San Antonio, Texas, during his first two years in high school that he had his “a-ha moment” while skipping swim practice.

“I started designing little RC planes from cardboard and I had a friend in school who liked building model rockets and so we decided to team up,” Ryan said. “We made a rocket powered plane and it actually caught on fire and completely crashed, but it was a lot of fun.”

When the family relocated to Northern Virginia, Ryan discovered the rocket club at Oakton High and got into building “real” model rockets.

“Before that, I was just building these strange rockets with my friend and launching them in a field,” Ryan said. “They usually didn’t come down in one piece, so getting into an organized club was a big change. The club’s rockets had to be safe and come down in one piece so they could be reused. And so that first year on the team, there was lots of learning for sure.”

With his new passion for spaceflight driving him forward, Ryan learned fast, and he learned well. He attended meetings, contributed ideas and experience and, for his senior year, he was named co-president of the club.

During that year, he and fellow club members did well enough to qualify for the ARC National Finals and were in the running for a third-place finish until the parachute on their rocket failed to deploy.

Ryan was also part of StellarXplorers Space STEM Program, which was created by the Air & Space Forces Association to inspire middle and high school students toward careers in space, aviation, and other STEM disciplines critical for the future.

Why Choose Embry‑Riddle for an Aerospace Engineering Degree?

With his sights set firmly on space, Embry‑Riddle became an obvious choice for Ryan, for several reasons.

“First of all, it's just one of the best schools you can go to for aerospace engineering,” he said. “Because I have moved around a lot, I have been in schools with different class sizes, and I learned that smaller classes are definitely my thing. And so, seeing that Embry Riddle had small classes even for undergraduate programs, I knew I could get to know my professors and just have a better learning experience.”

Ryan also credits his older brother, Jack, who is now in the architecture program at Virginia Tech, with helping him settle on Embry‑Riddle.

“He got a flyer from Embry‑Riddle when he was getting ready for college and I ended up keeping it,” Ryan said. “That was actually the first I had heard of Embry‑Riddle and I thought it sounded really cool.”

So far, Ryan says the reality of his Embry‑Riddle experience is living up to the hype.

“It’s been great actually,” he said. “Having my AP credits has helped lighten the load and I love the professors.”

Although his collegiate journey is just beginning, Ryan is already excited about the potential opportunities that he knows Embry‑Riddle will provide in the future.

"I want to build spaceships and I want to be an astronaut, too. And there is no better place to make those things happen than right here."

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