Student Programs: Experience that Sets AIAA Student Members Apart

We learn best by doing and there’s no better teacher than AIAA’s student programs, including Student Design Competitions, Regional Student Conferences, and Design/Build/Fly (DBF). AIAA student competitions and conferences give students the kind of real-world experiences that can set them on a path for a successful career. AIAA members volunteer their time and expertise to make these experiences more than presenting research or a design paper. For many students, it’s the first time they’ve received constructive feedback about their research, design, presentation style, and other essential factors from successful professionals working in their field.

Students also learn to take on different challenges such as electrical VTOL, says Ludovic Noels, faculty advisor for the University of Liege team that won second place in the 2018–2019 Graduate Team Aircraft Design Competition. The international aspect of the competition is motivating and these ambitious projects mean that students need to work hand in hand to achieve their objectives.

Gilles Crutzen, who was part of the eight-member Liege team and is earning a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, says the team learned to organize their work in a similar way to how an aircraft manufacturer would do around such sessions as brainstorming, technical meetings, organization meetings, and design iterations. The team designed an autonomous electric VTOL aircraft. The project was tied to their studies, making the competition relevant to their current work and future careers. In addition, feedback from not only the technical point of view but also from an economic perspective gives students a greater understanding of how their design would be evaluated by industry, Noels adds.

DBF is in its 24th year and a quick internet search yields lots of crash videos. But what the students take away from DBF helps them in the classroom and beyond as they learn that working through failures and learning from them is a good thing!

Brian Holst is a great example. Pursuing a B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace engineering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Brian joined UAF’s year-old Design/Build/Fly club in 2016. “DBF has allowed me to grow tremendously. It has let me use the concepts I have learned in the classroom to experiment and learn how to design a reliable aircraft,” he says. “… it has taught me how to be a team member, a leader, and a more outgoing person. … I have been able to teach, connect and learn to help others working on getting their planes off the ground. There is no greater feeling than watching your aircraft take off for the first time, except maybe watching the reaction of someone you helped see their aircraft take off for the first time.”

“When I joined the team, I had no flying experience and neither did anyone on the team. They asked for someone to be a pilot and I was the only one to raise my hand,” he recalls. “That was a defining moment as I now had the responsibility of the whole team on my shoulders.”

At last year’s DBF, the young UAF team completed all its missions for the first time in the school’s history. They finished in 23rd place, returning to Alaska with plenty of ideas and lessons learned to apply to their next year.

It’s these kinds of hands-on experience that sets students apart, says AIAA Fellow Armand J. Chaput, a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin and a DBF judge. When he was a manager at General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin Corp., engineers with design competition experience went to the top of the hiring list, says Chaput.

“Too many engineers are graduating without building anything,” Chaput notes. “Their hands-on experience is generally through their phones and video screens.” If universities and organizations such as AIAA don’t give students this experience in the beginning of their careers, then it’s an expensive game of catchup for industry to train entry-level engineers, Chaput adds.

It’s why AIAA strongly encourages students to participate in design competitions and paper conferences before they graduate. AIAA volunteers are vitally important to this mission because they supply the guidance needed to start these nascent careers. I’m proud to say AIAA’s student competitions and conferences are second to none, thanks to both the student competitors and AIAA members serving as mentors and judges.

Information about AIAA’s Student Programs

This year’s DBF ( flyoff has been cancelled due to concerns about coronavirus, but students will still have their technical reports reviewed and the program will be back next year.

2020 Design Competitions have been released in Missile Systems Design, Aircraft Design, Space Systems Design, and Engine Design. Information can be found at

This year’s U.S. AIAA Regional Student Conferences have been cancelled because of concerns over the coronavirus. Updated information can be found at

And AIAA has teamed with Blue Origin to create Design/Build/Launch ( for high school students to compete to launch experimental payloads designed to study short-duration microgravity effects.

Students, I encourage you to put your know-how to the test and learn new skills at these exciting events. You can use what you learn to take on the next challenge and expand our understanding of aerospace. ★

Student Programs: Experience that Sets AIAA Student Members Apart