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A continuing partnership between Boeing and Tuskegee University’s Department of Aerospace Science Engineering is allowing students to experience the collaborative design-build-fly process firsthand.
Boeing’s AerosPACE program extends over two semesters, which provides Tuskegee’s aerospace science engineering students a senior-year capstone design experience that simulates their future work environments. The program requires multi-institution teams to design, build and fly an unmanned aerial system (UAS). Because team members are spread among different institutions, students learn to plan, fabricate and test their team’s UAS by collaborating virtually, with limited in-person interaction.
In addition to Tuskegee, the partnership includes Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), Clemson University (Clemson, South Carolina), Everett Community College (Everett, Washington), Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta) and Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana). Tuskegee is the only HBCU in the partnership.
On Apr. 12, students and faculty from the six partner institutions, as well as Boeing scientists and business leaders, gathered at the Radio Aero Modelers of Montgomery (RAMM) Airfield to witness the teams’ successful design-build efforts. This year’s fly-off was the first one to be hosted by Tuskegee University, presented at the event by Interim President Charlotte P. Morris.
“I was nervous,” Nia Allen, a senior from Williamsboro, New Jersey, said after recounting the initial moments her team’s aircraft went airborne. She noted that the project ended up being about more than just employing her aerospace knowledge.
“Working with students from other schools was both the best and most challenging part of this program,” Allen said. “Scheduling around your own school commitments and other campus activities requires a great deal of discipline and time-management skills.”
Dr. Javed Khan, professor and head of Tuskegee’s Department of Aerospace Science Engineering, agreed that the project gives students valuable experience beyond the concepts they learn in the classroom.
“The experience our graduating seniors gain through Boeing’s AerosPACE program is so relevant to their career goals — even if they chose to work somewhere other than Boeing,” Khan said. “Their participation simulates the geographically and topically diverse teams they will be part of in the ‘real world,’ demonstrates how their academic experience at Tuskegee rivals that of their peers, and provides them with opportunities to develop relationships with industry professionals and leaders.”
The odds seem to be in favor of Tuskegee’s soon-to-be graduates joining the Boeing ranks. Khan reported that six of the nine Tuskegee students participating in this year’s AerosPACE program received Boeing job offers before they graduated.
Khan noted the university’s inclusion in the AerosPACE program allows Tuskegee to have an even greater impact on industry-wide diversity.
“Naturally, the opportunity to participate in a program of this caliber is a wonderful student recruitment tool for our aerospace science engineering program,” Khan said. “In turn, our students’ participation produces well-rounded engineers while ensuring greater ethnic and gender diversity in the industry as we strive to prepare more African-Americans and women for STEM-related careers.”
Khan cited the Boeing AerosPACE program as one of several factors that have resulted in a doubling of the program’s enrollment during the past six years. This academic year, the department has touted an enrollment of about 140 undergraduate students.
“Our enrollment — as well as our graduation rates — have really ratcheted up,” Khan said. “There was a time when we used to graduate five or six students a year. Last year, we graduated 21 African-American aerospace engineers, and this academic year, the department will graduate 20.”
Throughout the AerosPACE design-build-fly process, the program’s “gated process” creates checkpoints where student teams interact with Boeing design and engineering professionals. That interaction comes mainly through a Boeing mentor assigned to each team. During their weekly virtual team meetings, the Boeing mentor helps ensure the team remains on track with its primary objectives, as well as helps the team troubleshoot and refine its design and fabrication process.
Senior Justin Smith of McDonough, Georgia, appreciated the hands-on experience he gained through the program and interacting with his team mentor and others at Boeing.
“Performing new fiberglass techniques and solving problems regarding weight were certainly challenges — I hadn’t tried those before,” said Smith, who also is a member of Tuskegee’s Navy ROTC program. “But, bringing a concept to life, working through those challenges and seeing that concept take flight was exciting.”
Through the partnership, Boeing provides funding for materials students need to design and build the UAS, along with access to industry-standard software and Boeing subject specialists. Since Tuskegee’s initial involvement in the AerosPACE program during the 2014-15 academic year, Boeing’s support has helped the Aerospace Science Engineering Department acquire multiple pieces of equipment essential for design-build-fly program. The department is planning to procure a laser cutter, which will then complete its suite of design facilities.
View the online photo album for more photos from the fly-off event.
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