- A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft in an MIT athletic field
This article originally appeared in The Education Issue of APEX Experience.
The last few months of 2014 saw two of the most significant anniversaries in American aviation history, but we’ll forgive you if you missed them. Both the University of Michigan (UM) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrated the centennials of their respective pioneering aerospace programs, marking 100 years of aeronautical education in the United States. Academic celebrations generally consist of speeches, forums and panels, and both universities adhered to form, with the UM’s Aero100 Weekend in mid September, followed a few weeks later by the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Centennial Symposium. Both events brought together some of the foremost minds in academics and the industry to talk about aviation’s future, and the education that will get us there.
Now, because great academic programs are grounded in history – and no strangers to rivalry – the first question that needed answering during this historic month was: Who pioneered the study of aeronautical engineering in the United States?
There is little doubt that MIT holds court as the most influential aeronautics school in the country. Its formal history dates back to 1914, when 28-year-old Jerome Clarke Hunsaker gave what is commonly billed as “the nation’s first course in aeronautical engineering.” Though his initial stint at MIT was short – Hunsaker left in 1916 to head up the Aircraft Division at the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair, and later served as assistant vice-president and engineer at Bell Labs and vice-president at Goodyear-Zeppelin – he returned in 1933 as head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and is widely considered one of the foremost thinkers in aeronautics.
- Aerospace Day at the University of Michigan
Meanwhile, in Ann Arbor, the story of who was first is told differently. In 1964, professor Robert Weeks published a short history of UM’s pioneering aeronautics program entitled The First Fifty Years. In it, he tells the story of colorful Polish engineer Felix Pawlowski – or “Pavvi” – who came to America hell-bent on advancing the field of aeronautical engineering. He reached out to 18 different universities with his ideas but received a few responses – among them MIT and Michigan – and only one offer of a teaching position. In addition to his 1914 class, Theory of Aviation, 30s-era Ann Arbor was also treated to the sight of the mustachioed professor patrolling campus in his souped-up Model T and swimming the Barton Dam in a bright red bathing suit.
We’ll give the last word to Jaime Peraire, current department head of the AeroAstro program at MIT, speaking in rival territory at the University of Michigan, where he quipped, “Just to dispel any confusion… you guys are the first undergraduate program. We’ll give you that; however, what happened in 1914 at MIT is that we had our first master’s program in aeronautics.” Peraire’s comments, made during a 2014 panel discussion called The Future of Aerospace Academics, were a precursor to a much broader discussion – alongside Michigan’s Alec Gallimore, Earl Dowell of Duke University, and Charbel Farhat of Stanford – covering a series of hot-button issues, including the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their role in aeronautical engineering, as well as a discussion on the bearish tendencies of university research funding.
- Aboard NASA’s C-9 Reduced Gravity research Program aircraft
In a short time, MOOCs have become both magnets for institutional investment and lightning rods for heated debate among university administrators, educators and students. Speaking at MIT’s conference, Sanjay Sarma, the university’s director of Digital Learning, pointed to the 155,000 learners signed up for the very first edX course, a joint MIT and Harvard project that today offers courses such as Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering and Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics. Sarma points to the global reach of these programs, with over 2.5 million learners in 196 countries, and highlights the success story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a Mongolian teenager now at MIT following his success in an engineering MOOC.
Now, while the picture is rosy and the technology is hot, universities and venture capitalists continue to pour billions of dollars into higher-ed tech projects. There are, however, cracks beginning to appear in the model, and pointed questions being asked. Students (and parents) are wondering aloud: Why are we paying huge sums for educational content that is available for free online? Despite the lengthy presentations touting the MOOCs at both conferences, this very question was posed to a panel at MIT, and met with applause from a crowd of alumni. Meanwhile, university administrators are scrambling to make business sense of the new platforms, and educators point to the difficulties in transferring experiential learning online, particularly in fields as complex as aeronautical engineering. Gallimore holds that “because of global competition, [the industry] wants engineers who are, dare I say, shovel-ready,” and that the higher-education community at Michigan believes that this is best achieved through “engaged learning, hands-on experiential learning.” Some areas of study, like computer science, stand to make great strides with online learning, but application to fields such as medicine and aeronautical engineering isn’t so clear-cut.
“Because of global competition, the industry wants engineers who are, dare I say, shovel-ready.” – Alec Gilmore, University of Michigan
Despite the uncertainty shrouding the way forward, there is, in many, a sense that the MOOCs are here to stay. “I think the change that is happening is somewhat irreversible … and it is going to have an impact on the way that we educate in campuses, and on the way that people learn,” says Peraire. But beyond the campus effect, the broader impact is on “the hundreds of thousands of people out there who don’t have access to information [and] education.”
Professor Mark Drela and research scientist Alejandra Uranga prepare the MIT-designed D-8 aircraft for testing NASA’s Langley, Virginia wind tunnel.
In 1953, a U.S. Air Force B-29 flew from Bedford to Los Angeles guided by Charles Stark “Doc” Draper’s Space Inertial Reference Equipment, the forerunner of today’s autopilot systems.
MIT graduate student Tony Tao holds a Locust, a tiny unmanned aerial vehicle that was designed and built for the U.S. Air Force by Aeronautics and Astronautics Department undergraduates.
Back on campus, the panelists found themselves at a difficult crossroads regarding the future of research funding. Federal funding, long the lifeblood of university research, has dropped by five to seven percent and is projected as staying flat for the next 20 years, not even matching inflation rates, according to Peraire. Given the bleak outlook, industry investment has begun to play a much more prominent role in funding research. Peraire pointed at some MIT departments that are currently receiving funding support of 20-25 percent from industry, up from 10 percent just a few years ago. There is a balancing act that needs to happen, believes Peraire, so that industry doesn’t turn to universities as a means of bringing down their own cost of research. But according to Gallimore, there is no doubt that “the opportunity is industry.” Pointing to another potential opportunity, Stanford’s Farhat noted that private donors “have the opportunity to contribute on some scale that is noticeable at the scale of government [funding]; and that is probably part of the solution … if this country wants to stay where it is and keep its leading edge.”
Strikingly, it wasn’t during the education panels that the issue of passenger experience came up. Despite a growing tendency towards multidisciplinary modes of education, the hyper-focused approach to aeronautics engineering seems to leave discussion of the passenger experience outside the classroom. It was during an MIT panel entitled The Future of Air Transportation that a savvy audience member and alum asked, “Who is it that is responsible for that total experience in terms of the educational system, and if the answer is nobody, how can we expect to see an integrated, systemic change in the passenger experience?”
The approach to aeronautics engineering seems to leave discussion of the passenger experience outside the classroom.
The question is no doubt complex: The technical challenges of the aircraft are daunting, the technology is in constant flux, who has time for experience? Or perhaps the view is that in terms of experience, the scope of engineering is limited to comfort. Certainly, Recaro engineers should be celebrated for winning the German Design Award 2015 for their CL6710 business seat, an award announced fours days after the MIT conference. So, the question remains, how are the premier educational institutions looking at passenger experience?
William Litant, director of communications at MIT’s AeroAstro Program, points out that in 1997 the program completely rethought its approach to an engineering education, “creating a syllabus for engineering education that’s now in place in over 100 universities around the world.” The CDIO Initiative (Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate) was born in Cambridge and has looked to return engineers to the “hands-on” approach to learning.
Speaking at the panel, R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, pointed at a “holistic class on airline management that attempts to look at all of the aspects” of the passenger experience. He also mentioned a recent initiative at the university, Transportation@MIT, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to the major transportation issues of the future, particularly in terms of sustainability. He points at MIT and UCal Berkeley as the leaders in this kind of thinking, but concedes that is often neglected. Echoing a discussion his colleagues made in Ann Arbor, he underlines that “it’s often hard to get people to fund research that is cross-modal.”
With IATA projecting 16 billion passengers aboard flights in 2050, it seems that passenger experience should be understood beyond comfort, and not solely as a management issue… it needs engineering.
View the AeroAstro Centennial video lectures here.