How Does the Aerospace Industry Solve Its Education Problem?

By Kelsey Reichmann | February 1, 2021
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The development of new technologies like eVTOL aircraft will require the aviation industry to rethink how they educate its workforce. Wisk’s eVTOL aircraft, Cora, takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane. It has 12 independent lift fans and stands at 21 feet long with a 36-foot wingspan. (Wisk)

Emerging technologies in the aviation industry like electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and artificial intelligence (AI) are facing a big problem that could stymie their implementation: the education of their future workforce. Industry professionals say aerospace education needs to undergo major changes in order for the industry to grow and be successful.

The success of future aerospace professionals depends on the collaboration of industry and educational institutions, reimagining the current curriculum, and continued education beyond universities, industry professionals said during a Jan. 28 panel hosted by the Vertical Flight Society’s 2021 Autonomous VTOL Technical Meeting and Electric VTOL Symposium.

“The industry is largely focused on creating pipelines to replace the retirement tsunami already facing us,” Kathryn Creedy, editor in chief of Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News, said. “While COVID may seem as a reprieve, it only compounds an already bad situation because it accelerated retirements that would have happened over five years into a single year. The loss of this body of knowledge significantly threatens our industry which is already challenged to figure out how to match baby boomers with millennials to pass on that knowledge, but the problems facing us go far beyond shortages and speak to the lack of preparedness in addressing the needs of emerging technologies such as Advanced Air Mobility, engineering, additive and advanced manufacturing, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul.”

Internships and recruiting fairs are ways that industry can shape academia, Amy Pritchett, department head of aerospace engineering at Penn State, said. These experiences leave impressions on students and shape the course and electives they select.

A more difficult conversation emerges when deciding the curriculum and accreditation guidelines. There are limits to how many classes students are required to take so while it may seem easy to just suggest adding another class when there is a gap between the curriculum and what future professionals need to know it is often not possible, Pritchett said.

“It sounds easy, oh, just add more courses,” Pritchett said. “No. Everybody wants to add more courses, and we’ve hit a hard-breaking point here. We have to make hard decisions about what concepts and experience we can vote to be into the credit limit…the good news is that…the accreditation process itself requires input through an advisory committee, typically involving industry and the professional community where we’re required to seek their input and show how we’ve taken it into account.”

Another issue industry professionals are finding is students become hyper-focused on one subject area like space engineering or electrical engineering and have such a deep level of research in a particular topic that they lack domain knowledge, Igor Cherepinsky, director of Sikorsky innovations at Sikorsky Aircraft, said.

“In fact, in a lot of cases, cross-domain knowledge is required to understand your colleagues to speak the same language,” Cherepinsky said. “We’re finding that there are some students who are leaving schools with let’s say doctoral degrees who have done very, very deep levels of research in one topic, very frequently actually have almost trouble fitting in because yes they are very well versed on this one thing, but perhaps they don’t have a deeper understanding. They need to interact with colleagues and leave them adjacent domains, not to mention, domains two to three times removed.”

According to the panel, the most important aspect of an aerospace students’ knowledge can come after they graduate from university. The main point stressed by multiple panelists was the continuation of learning once joining the workforce.

“We also need to recognize that education is no longer graduating from college or grad school, and then on the job training,” Creedy. “Aviation aerospace education is now a lifelong continuing education job. Future education has to deliver academic programs that meet the new technologies coming at us, and businesses must rethink professional development and make it available right down the line workers. Issues brought on by the emergence of Advanced Air Mobility and vertical flight are complex and it is past time to jump in with both feet on making changes.”

Mark Robeson, structure technology area lead of the aviation technology development directorate for the U.S. Army, said the Army has continuous learning requirements. Robeson said these requirements are met by both formal and informal education.

The formal education includes the Defense Acquisition University or the Vertical Lift Research Centers of Excellence at universities at Penn State, Georgia Tech, and University of Maryland, Robeson said. Informal training can vary widely. One example is exposing new engineers to activities outside of their expertise areas.

“We have in-house engineering design and analysis, as well as electrical and mechanical fabrication,” Robeson said. “We try to get our new engineers some experience in these areas and these are also critical to enabling our flight test capability. We have significant structural testing capabilities and facilities, as well as engine exhaust pressure testing facilities. We also have ballistics test capabilities and facilities. Again, particularly with our newer engineers, even if they’re not going to be working predominantly in these areas, we try to get some exposure to this test capability and these facilities, it not only helps them understand the big picture, but it provides a variety of opportunities that they can leverage in their own areas of expertise.”

Others in the industry are developing technology for engineers to use on the job like David Segal, business development executive for the federal, aerospace, and defense industry at PTC, who is creating a digital augmented reality technology for training and distance learning.

“We all know that technology changed quite a bit how our new generation of technicians and frontline workers use technology,” Segal said. “So, we bring this gaming like technology to the hands of engineers, particularly right now when mobile devices and eyewear device lens are widely available. So, we bring the context of this digital technology to be overlaid on the actual, physical assets devices. When the digital twins can be streamed into those devices and provide real time, immediate training and learning to the engineer.”

Creedy said it’s important that aviation education not be stymied by antiquated federal regulations like it has been in the past.

“One of the major problems is insistent on college for everyone,” Creedy said. “For that reason, industry, government, academia must work together to forge new regulations and new training procedures and new academic programs that bring the industry into the 21st century.”


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