Rocket Science, Soap and Everything in Between

There are high-achieving students, and then there’s George Pandya.

In 2016, 18-year-old Pandya received his third associate degree as well as a certificate from Arapahoe Community College (ACC) in Colorado. This same year, he graduated from high school — STEM School Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colorado — as valedictorian.

This fall, Pandya will begin classes at the University of Pennsylvania’s Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology, a dual degree program that awards degrees from both the Wharton School of Business and Penn Engineering. Only about 50 students from around the world are accepted into the program each year.

“It’s a real honor to get in,” he said. “I applied as a long shot; I never expected to get in. But it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Pandya’s love of learning ranges from rocket science to history, politics to literature. He grew up in a home where “exploration of science and technology was nurtured” — both of his parents have engineering backgrounds, and Pandya was often taking things like remote controls apart.

One grandparent was an educator; the other, an entrepreneur. Pandya inherited qualities of both and is committed to doing the most with what he’s been given.

“I don’t like boring”

Pandya started at ACC when he was 15 years old through his school’s dual enrollment program. He took “everything (he) found interesting,” resulting in the multiple degrees. He joined the Sigma Phi Chapter, serving as Vice President of Leadership and then President.

“I guess I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I always want to see what else I can do. I don’t like boring, but I find everything interesting, so I end up having a lot of great experiences.”

One such experience? Being one of the youngest people ever to intern with United Launch Alliance (ULA) in Colorado, which he has done in the summer of 2015 and 2016. Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company formed ULA to provide “reliable, cost-efficient access to space for U.S. government missions.”

Among Pandya’s assignments was to design a “real-time, integrated, data-filtering” algorithm that would make rocket launches easier to monitor. He did so successfully and was invited into the mission control room for the Delta IV launch.

His most recent internship found him helping to design the new Vulcan rocket, among other projects.

Pandya previously got experience with ULA when he led a team of 10 students from his high school to design a payload that launched on a ULA intern-build rocket.

For this particular payload, Pandya needed a lift-off sensor that would trigger functions only after launch and save battery power. The ones he could find were bulky, expensive and not accurate enough; so, he designed one himself. The patent is pending.

“It was really very simple,” he said. “This invention has been especially useful for model rocket makers who need such a sensor.”

Pandya also worked on teams developing payloads for the Colorado Space Grant Consortium RockSat-C and DemoSat programs, both sponsored by NASA.

“It was something I did for fun”

In 2014, Pandya was curious about the effect the sitting President’s approval rating would have on the approaching U.S. midterm congressional elections. He began looking through historical data going back to 1946 to see if there might be a connection.

The results of his research led him to create a predictive model for future midterm elections, which he used to accurately predict the number of seats won and lost in Congress in the 2014 election.

He watched anxiously as election results were announced — and finally breathed when he saw they matched his predictions, validating his model. He wanted to share his findings, so he turned to ACC math professor Jeff Berg for guidance.

With Berg’s help, Pandya’s findings were published in the Cornell University Library Journal of Social and Information Networks. He was only 17 at the time.

“Mr. Pandya has outstanding initiative, work ethic and drive,” Berg said in a letter of recommendation. “He has maturity beyond his years and the drive to take himself to the next level, especially in an academic environment.”

Pandya was invited by the Mathematical Association of America to present his research at the 12th Annual Pikes Peak Regional Undergraduate Mathematical Conference at the United States Air Force Academy in 2015. He was also invited to speak at the Rocky Mountain Sectional Math Conference.

“It was a good experience,” he said. “It was something I did for fun. Whether it got published was icing on the cake. I just enjoyed going through the research and learning something new.”

“If you have the merit to succeed, you should be able to succeed”

In April 2016, Pandya helped found Starts with Soap, a non-profit that provides soap and other necessary items to underfunded schools across the country.

This is a grass-roots effort: high schools and colleges establish chapters that partner with an underfunded school. A team of regional executives and managers oversee the chapters. Pandya serves as the Chief Operating Officer.

“It promotes equitable education,” he said. “I believe that if you have the merit to succeed, you should be able to succeed. Of course, you also have to have the resources to succeed.”

In addition to his work with Starts with Soap, Pandya serves on the Board of Directors for Front Range BEST Robotics, a non-profit that hosts robotics competitions for middle and high school students.

In 2015, he mentored middle school students in his high school’s STEM Kids Care Club, who in turn mentored younger underprivileged ESL children in a local Early Childhood Center. He also created personalized notes of encouragement to post in the lockers of middle school students to curb bullying.

“Since much of bullying is caused by self-esteem issues, this initiative significantly reduced bullying on campus,” he said.

At ACC, as part of his Phi Theta Kappa chapter’s Honors in Action Project, he led research and worked with the school’s sewing students to design and create clothing that adapts to the form of disabled people and improves their comfort and range of motion.

Pandya’s achievements are many — being named a 2016 Hites Scholar and a 2016 Coca-Cola Scholar among them — but he knows they were only possible because he took advantage of the opportunities presented to him. And he fully intends to pass such opportunities on to as many students as he can.

“If George has a weakness, I don’t know what it is,” Elijah Dicks, an ACC history professor, said in a letter of recommendation. “I’ve had a lot of students over the years, and I can confidently say that if I was going to select one that I thought was going to go on to do big things with his life, it would be George.”