Aerospace Degree Lifts Off

The aerospace engineering program has taken flight at Rutgers School of Engineering with the graduation of its first degree recipients.

Eight students received Bachelor of Science degrees in Aerospace Engineering at commencement in May; that number is expected to jump to 50 in 2019 and 60 in 2020, said Assimina Pelegri, undergraduate program director for mechanical and aerospace engineering.  Rutgers is the first public school in the state to offer the degree and joins other high-profile schools in the Big Ten Conference in doing so.

The aerospace program started admitting juniors, most of whom began studying mechanical engineering, in the fall of 2016. It was clear that the demand for the degree was there: Interest in drones and other aerospace technology is robust, the job market in aircraft design is growing, and more than 60 students each year sought Aerospace Engineering Certificates from Rutgers as part of their engineering degrees.

Jason Lyons had planned to get the certificate and seized the opportunity to be among the first to earn the full-fledged degree. “It’s exciting for us and the university,” said Lyons, of Hunterdon County. “I’ve always had a passion for flight and engineering. It just seemed like a natural path for me.”

Rutgers offers the only public aerospace degree within a 200-mile radius and the School of Engineering was well-positioned to launch the program, said Pelegri.  A substantial number of faculty have aerospace engineering doctorates and Weeks Hall, the new SOE building, now under construction, can comfortably accommodate laboratory and flight testing facilities needed for the success of the program, she said.

Rutgers is one of six FAA-designated test sites for advancing the integration of drones into national airspace and the new Emil Buehler Aerospace Lab features a state-of-the-art, Mach 3.45, supersonic wind tunnel (SWT) facility.

The aerospace curriculum includes courses in spacecraft mission design, aerospace structures, aircraft flight dynamics, orbital mechanics, and more. A year-long senior design project, in which students work in teams to develop aerospace prototypes, caps the program. In addition to the bachelor’s degree, the department also is offering a five-year dual degree master’s program in mechanical and aerospace engineering and a B.S. coupled with a Master’s in Business Administration.

Eli Weiss said being part of the senior design team of the inaugural class was both challenging and fun.  He gave props to the “passionate” faculty at the SOE.  “Some of the classes were really a struggle but they gave me skills that go beyond engineering,” he said. Degree in hand, Weiss is now interviewing at aerospace firms and hopes to relocate to Los Angeles, near his family.

Faculty have worked to cultivate pipelines to industry and recruit underrepresented students, like women and minorities, to engineering, Pelegri said. Alice Tchoudov is on track to be the program’s first female graduate in December. She did a co-op at UTC Aerospace Systems in Troy, OH in 2016 where she worked on testing breaks and wheels for aircrafts.  This summer she has a paid internship at Northrop Grumman Corporation, the global aerospace and defense technology company, in San Diego.

Tchoudov, of Pine Beach, said she’s not intimidated about entering a male-dominated profession and found great support in the Rutgers’ chapters of the Society for Women in Engineering and Theta Tau, the coed engineering fraternity. She is leading a team of a half-dozen men in her senior design program and is heartened by the fact that Rutgers’ program director, Pelegri, is female.  “I look up to her, I think that’s great,” said Tchoudov, clearly excited about the profession she’s chosen. “I just want to work in the aerospace industry in some way, shape or form.”