January 31, 2012 — Coral Gables — A math and science whiz who earned an engineering degree and once worked on the Space Shuttle, Roger Koch rarely encountered a problem in his field that he couldn’t solve.
One dilemma, however, had always puzzled him: why so few African-Americans were engineers.
“When I got involved in the aviation industry after college and began attending different conferences and shows, I would see only one or two black engineers, sometimes out of a group of attendees numbering in the thousands,” recalled Koch, a former president and owner of a Miami-based engineering firm that specialized in seats, cabinetry, and interiors for aircraft.
Always a strong believer in diversity, Koch knew that somehow “we needed to get more African-American college students to major in engineering” and then excel in the profession.
Now, a $1 million gift from the Miami entrepreneur to the University of Miami’s College of Engineering will help fulfill that goal.
Half of Koch’s generous endowment will fund scholarships for African-American engineering students from Miami-Dade, Broward, Monroe, and Collier counties. The other half, given to support current needs as decided by James M. Tien, dean of the College of Engineering, will be used to help students gain experience in solving real-world engineering problems, support their senior capstone projects through input from professional engineers, and recruit design engineers who will interact with students, faculty members, and the college’s industry partners.
“This gift supports two critical needs,” Tien said. “It is one more stepping stone that will help achieve an infusion of African-American students into engineering, and it will help ensure the success of our student engineers, who will have careers in a century that demands an innovative economy and a new proficiency in inter- and multidisciplinary collaborations.”
Koch’s gift to UM is part of his ongoing endeavor to increase the number of minorities in engineering, a field in which he blossomed as a college student and businessman. One of his first jobs was working for a Chicago research company that worked on NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
In the late 1970s, he moved from the Windy City, known for its frigid winters, to Miami, eventually landing a job as an engineer with the aviation company DECA. When DECA was sold to Jetborne in 1983, Koch was hired as general manager of Jetborne’s aircraft interior component manufacturing operation, which it named Aircraft Modular Products (AMP). He eventually became company president and led a management buyout of AMP in 1990. As president and majority owner, Koch spearheaded tremendous growth at AMP until the company was sold to B.E. Aerospace eight years later. At the time of the sale, AMP was one of South Florida’s largest manufacturing companies, employing more than 350 workers, many of them engineers with college degrees.
With the lucrative sale of the firm, Koch’s philanthropic deeds multiplied, and he was able to ramp up his efforts in increasing minority representation in engineering. He donated $1 million to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, creating the Edward W. Stimpson Endowed Scholarship Fund to benefit minority students. The scholarship is named for Koch’s longtime colleague and friend. Stimpson, an aviation pioneer who died in 2009, also recognized the need to attract more underrepresented students to engineering, Koch said.
Koch has also given generously to his alma mater, giving $1 million to the University of Iowa for research into bipolar disorders, as well as an additional $1 million to support that university’s Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering. He also has supported his children’s former high school, Miami Country Day School in Miami Shores, to which he has contributed more than $1 million for various facilities projects.
Koch first established ties with the University of Miami in the early 1990s, hiring some of the school’s engineering students to work at AMP. He noticed that many of them were unfamiliar with computer-aided design (CAD), which was quickly becoming a popular technological tool among engineers. So Koch convinced two of his company’s suppliers to donate computer software and other equipment to UM’s College of Engineering to help students learn CAD. And he persuaded then-dean Lew Temares to push for the creation of a technical writing course geared toward engineers and scientists.
The philanthropist’s latest gift not only benefits UM but also addresses a national concern. He said that while there are more African-American engineers today than when he started in the field, more efforts are needed to increase their numbers, and funding scholarships for minority students is one way to accomplish that goal.
Being a scholarship recipient at Iowa heavily influenced Koch’s desire to want to help today’s students. “Without the scholarships I received, I would never have been able to go to college. My family was very poor,” he said.
He grew up in western Iowa on a dairy farm, milking as many as 60 cows a day, cleaning hog houses, and performing many other duties. “We had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to do our chores and catch the school bus at 7:30. We had to milk the cows again when we got home—all the stuff you do when you’re a farm kid,” he said. “It was hard work, and it taught me that you can be happy even when you’re working hard.”
Today, Koch is not totally retired. He spends some of his time working with a few former AMP engineers in developing LED lighting products in partnership with Fort Lauderdale-based Silescent Technologies.
He is happy in knowing that his giving helps others. “I have more than I need, and you don’t take anything with you,” he said. “I just enjoy doing little things like this to, hopefully, make life a little bit better for people who can use a little help.”
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