Soaring education

Aerospace engineering educators employ some surprising teaching tools and methods

Aerospace engineering educators have embraced change pretty much since the first college-level program was offered in the United States in 1914 under the heading “aeronautical” engineering.

Course material expanded with the advent of commercial airlines, helicopters, plus two world wars worth of aerial missions. The Space Age brought the term “aerospace,” thus extending educators’ purview into the final frontier.

Today, aerospace educators are innovating technically and pedagogically in ways that their 20th-century predecessors would likely applaud. Teachers and students are increasingly turning to a range of tools, from ubiquitous internet and smartphones to online simulation apps and 3-D printers. Highly affordable drones and tiny satellites called cubesats are further expanding curricula and opportunities for students to design, build and fly.

“Twenty years ago, there was more of a traditional, classwork style setting, where you have someone on a stage talk and talk, and then the students go home. We’re shifting from that to a more hands-on, more proactive learning approach,” says Adeel Khalid, an associate professor in mechanical and systems engineering at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and president of the Aerospace Division of the nonprofit American Society for Engineering Education based in Washington, D.C.

Traditionally, most undergraduate students waited until their senior semesters to take on an intensive, capstone development project bringing together various bits of theory and experimentation from earlier courses. That is no longer the case.

“We make sure we start right away doing hands-on build and design freshman year; we don’t just leave it for graduating seniors,” says Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT and a former NASA deputy administrator. “Students learn by doing.”

In short, students are commonly invited or even required to participate in the skills-building fun of physical craftsmanship.

Here is an in-depth look at some of the innovative methods and ideas educators are deploying nationwide to train the next generation of aerospace engineers.

Breaking the mold

Taking cues from other disciplines, aerospace engineering programs are integrating a pedagogical technique known as the flipped classroom. Rather than sitting through lectures to prepare them to complete homework, students in this new approach spend time outside the classroom watching video lectures, reading books or engaging in website tutorials. The time in class is switched over to tackling homework-style exercises, asking questions and, quite often, meeting up in an engineering lab. “The students can go to an apparatus, like a wind tunnel, a flight simulator, or an engine test bench,” says Khalid, “and actually run an experiment that’s relevant to the theory they read about the night before.”

Making the transition to a flipped classroom is at first challenging for students accustomed to the conventional approach. “It takes students a week or two to adjust, but then a lot of them really enjoy it,” says Khalid. He has found that his students and those of colleagues benefit from the inside-out arrangement. “I’ve noticed that their understanding, maturity and learning has increased substantially in the flipped classroom environment,” Khalid says.

Some teachers are also exposing students to concepts and issues beyond the typical parameters of aerospace engineering. “What we’re doing more and more is going to other majors and not just keeping within aerospace,” says Brian Landrum, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

At UAH, instructors guide undergrads in the engineering instruments lab to work with students in the College of Nursing. The student nurses come up with problems in need of aero solutions. One example: devising a remote-controlled drone for disaster response. The nurses identified which supplies would be most needed, and the engineers figured out how to quickly and securely deliver them to the scene.

Other times, biology majors have advised aero students on “biomimicry” projects, in which students derive designs by studying nature, such as how a butterfly flaps its wings to climb.

Connected classrooms

Flipped or not, the lecture hall remains a mainstay of aerospace engineering education. But teachers are finding ways of making it a less static, more stimulating environment.

A good starting point is the vastness of online information that students can view in the classroom on their smartphones and on large but surprisingly affordable wall-mounted screens. Pencils, notepads and textbooks still have their place, but aerospace students can have reference material flow digitally, enhancing learning potential, instead of distracting from it. “In my classroom, everything is web-connected,” says Landrum. “It’s really easy to connect and get information.”

This is a major cultural shift.

“There was a time, not too long ago, where people were discouraged from using cellphones and tablets and laptops in the classroom because they were disruptive,” says Khalid. “Now we’re encouraging people to use those devices to learn actively.”

Khalid often asks his students to take half a minute to look up and share with the class other examples of the aircraft type currently under discussion. To get students initially interested, Khalid explains why a particular aircraft is designed just so, from a heavy cargo, military vehicle like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy to a fleet-footed Airbus Helicopters’ H155 civilian chopper. “Every aircraft has a story behind it, a reason for its existence, a mission it was designed for. And everybody likes stories. I can stand in front of a class and talk theory, but that gets boring quickly,” Khalid says.

To fight boredom and optimize content absorption, some professors are adopting what are called classroom response systems, a popular one being Poll Everywhere. These services work as follows: Students log onto a website or app on their phones during class and indicate their grasp of the concept that’s being taught. Poll results are posted on a screen at the front of the classroom. If a lot of people are just not getting it, the duly informed teacher can spend additional time explaining the tricky aerospace concept. This instant feedback beats the traditional asking for a show of hands, which MIT’s Newman calls “kludgy.” Not only time-consuming, the old-fashioned method suffered because some students would feel embarrassed about publicly declaring their bewilderment.

Labs on demand

Some students grasp classroom concepts quickly, but are hobbled by confusion when it comes to operating the machines in the laboratory and workshop. They might not fully grasp the insights the apparatuses can offer for a given project. An increasingly popular strategy calls for letting the lab come to them, so to speak, through a suite of online, virtual laboratories that are becoming ever more powerful and utilized.

“There’s a virtual environment emerging,” says Darryll Pines, dean of the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. “While they will never duplicate being in the lab, the programs help students understand the phenomena and physics you’re trying to convey to them.”

Some popular (and sometimes free) online software applications simulate functional wind tunnels, airfoil lift and drag calculations, jet engine functions, fluid- and aerodynamic flow, and more. The benefits are manifold. One is that access to equipment, like large-scale wind tunnels, is not available to every school. Another benefit is that students can access the applications “24/7, right from their dorm rooms,” says Newman. That includes late at night, when more than a few students prefer to do their studying.

Experience breeds familiarity, and expertise. “Students can go in and tweak all these parameters,” Newman says. “They’re going to enjoy it, first of all, and spend more time with it, and that’s how they can really learn more.” As a result, when students do enter the physical lab, they will have a much better designed experiment and knowledge of the apparatuses’ capabilities.

Refining refinement

For many teachers, the 3-D printer has emerged as the newest must-have tool for teaching rapid prototyping. Decent 3-D printers can be had for a few hundred dollars nowadays, so academic labs have accordingly stocked up. Students can crank out model after model for testing and design refinement. Students can now draw a design and within hours translate them into a physical model. Modifying a parameter, like an airfoil shape, can be done with a few keyboard clicks. Put another way, students can fail faster and more often, which Newman says is an excellent approach to learning the ropes of aerospace engineering: “A lot of design is iteration.”
In a similar vein, schools are acquiring their own quadcopters and other drones for student experimentation.

These aircraft are now inexpensive enough to cross over as mass-market holiday gifts. Newman says students can tinker with aerodynamics, remote-control interfaces, signaling, data transmission from cameras and sensors, and other computer-coding, related systems.

“All engineers are hackers on one level or another,” she says, “and these aircraft let them test out their own algorithms and controls.”

Kennesaw’s Khalid also points out that drones are pushing the aerospace education field forward in a subtler manner, by forcing students to consider the “human factor,” the operator’s remote views and other information streams, communications for maintaining control, and expediting repairs back at base.

Then there are the tiny cubesats that can weigh barely more than a kilogram, although sometimes more when multiple units are joined. Cubesats are built to an industry standard so that they can be released into orbit from any launch vehicle or spacecraft equipped with the proper dispenser. They have been dispatched by the hundreds into orbit in recent years, including from the International Space Station and from U.S. government and privately owned launch vehicles. Teachers and their students can equip them with rudimentary cameras and other sensors to send data back to Earth. Getting one on-orbit costs only a few tens of thousands of dollars, well within many university budgets. Scores of schools have built or are building their own cubesats, granting their engineering students some genuine spaceflight hardware experience. “It’s a cubesat revolution,” says Newman.

Looking ahead, looking back

The teaching innovations seen in the first part of the 21st century probably amount to scratching the surface. Professors are beginning to think about how artificial intelligence and quantum computing might be applied someday.

Nearer-term, interest is growing in augmented reality as a technology that could make classrooms still more dynamic. This technology overlays computer-generated visuals on top of students’ views of the classroom on a phone’s display screen, à la the Pokémon Go app. If the price of augmented reality headsets comes down, students will likely look through those. Students could feast their eyes and minds on, say, interactive schematics of engines or air rushing past nosecones.

Newman says MIT is certainly interested. “I think we’re right on the cusp of being in a really immersive educational environment,” she says. Newman can imagine a high-definition panorama of Mars, where students would feel like “space-suited Martian astronauts.” This would be a compelling way to virtually explore space or develop landing-craft development for interplanetary missions.

For all the high-tech components in modern aerospace education, something important to hang onto, UAH’s Landrum argues, is familiarity and fluency in physical and mechanical principles. He requires his sophomore students to fashion tiny planes out of objects taken from the trash, powered by a rubber band-wound motor, that must carry pennies a minimum distance. The project can be a challenge to today’s students, Landrum says. Many of their self-taught skills are in programming and robotics, and less so in the building of model planes and rockets so popular in generations past. Both are valuable for a well-rounded education.

“You’ve got to have a kind of balance. If you get too advanced, you lose sight of the more fundamental stuff,” Landrum says, joking, “I have an old-school side, too.”

Related Topics

Aircraft Design

About Adam Hadhazy

Adam writes about astrophysics and technology. His work has appeared in Discover and New Scientist magazines.

“Every aircraft has a story behind it, a reason for its existence, a mission it was designed for. And everybody likes

Adeel Khalid, American Society for Engineering Education
A man in a red shirt assembles a model airplane on a table outdoors, with people and vehicles in the background.
Josh Gaus, a student at University of Maryland Clark School of Engineering, was an intern at the university’s UAS Test Site in 2016. Summer interns work on a project with a faculty adviser and are paid an hourly rate, in addition to learning under the guidance of the site’s operations team. Credit: University of Maryland
Three people, including one in a military uniform, collaborate on assembling electronic components inside a workshop.
MIT students work on the Microsized Microwave Atmospheric Satellite, a joint project with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, that was deployed from the International Space Station. Credit: William Litant/MIT

Soaring education