Podcast: Can Higher Education Keep Up With Aerospace?

Listen in as the University of Michigan’s aerospace engineering chair Dr. Anthony Waas and Aviation Week’s Graham Warwick discuss megatrends that are reshaping the industry with host Joe Anselmo.

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Rush transcript

Joe Anselmo:

Welcome to this week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, Aviation Week's editorial director. There is no doubt that the aerospace industry is in the midst of some profound shifts, incorporating technological advances such as digital engineering and autonomy, while blazing new markets in space and advanced air mobility.

           So what needs to be done, to make sure that our institutions of higher learning are preparing the next generation of workers for this changing landscape?

           The University of Michigan's aerospace engineering department recently completed a strategic review that examined that challenge.

           Joining us to discuss its findings, is Dr. Anthony Waas, who chairs the aerospace engineering department in Ann Arbor.

           We're also joined by Aviation Week's technology guru, Executive Editor Graham Warwick, who was once an engineering student himself.

           Dr. Waas, welcome. Thank you for joining us. Your report identifies five megatrends that will shape the future of aerospace. What are those megatrends?

Dr. Anthony Waas:

The five megatrends that we feel in Ann Arbor are going to shape the future of aerospace, we like to put it this way.

           The first one we think that's most important is carbon neutrality. We call it sustainable aviation.

           Because of several issues related to climate change and the atmosphere that's declining and making our planet not inhabitable unless we do something, we feel that aerospace and aviation in general, can lessen its contribution to the expanding carbon footprint. That's carbon neutrality.

           This is about rethinking, redesigning, new propulsion concepts that will reduce the carbon footprint when we fly in our atmosphere.

           Electric airplanes, hydrogen-powered airplanes, fuel cell-powered airplanes, these are all on the table for looking at the aviation design vehicles and how we are going to propel ourselves.

           Mobility in general, is going through a major transformation. This, I think is the biggest megatrend that we've identified as shaping our future footprint.

           The second one is space. Today, the space economy is rated at about a third of a trillion dollars. Within the next 15 years, that is supposed to triple. So, that'll be a $1 trillion industry, the space aspects of aerospace.

           That would require significant issues related to workforce. One of the questions we are grappling with is, do we have enough trained individuals and skill labor, to take up these new jobs that will open up when commercial space and space technologies, space exploration takes off?

           In Ann Arbor, we are gearing up to change our curriculum, to look at how we train our students to enter that space, that new workspace that's going to be a major megatrend in aviation in the future.

           The third megatrend is digital engineering. Of course, this is not specific to aviation, but it certainly has an impact in aviation.

           Digital engineering is about the transformations that are being made possible due to data science advances, due to the fact that the computer and its use is revolutionizing the way we design air and space vehicles.

           But it's not only that. It's the integration of the different disciplines that form the supply chains and the logistics associated with the aviation enterprise.

           So, digital engineering has many facets. And the important aspects in our department are how these digital tools are being used wisely and to make processes efficient in the aerospace industry. We are focusing on that.

           One of the new things we've done here in Ann Arbor, is to start the very first ever MBSE lab, Model-Based Systems Engineering, which is very big in the aviation enterprise.

           So, we are introducing our undergraduates to MBSE during the senior years, to this lab that has been generously funded by many aerospace giants, who have contributed to getting that lab off the ground.

           The fourth megatrend is resilient autonomous system. You could see this in the fact that, if we look at basically our air traffic control system, our future air mobility control systems, these things have to be replaced and made more efficient.

           This will require developing networks that are resilient, that are more efficient in governing and controlling, not only air traffic, but in the future, air taxi traffic as well. We anticipate the entrance of air taxis into the market.

           That brings our fifth megatrend, which is advanced air mobility. I have been joking with my colleagues that in my lifetime, I will be able to come to work in an air taxi. It's no longer a joke. If I can afford an air taxi, I would love to reduce my 25 minute commute in Ann Arbor to about five minutes.

           Can you imagine what that'll do to folks who are living in crowded cities like Seattle, Washington, DC, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, just in the US?

           But now if you take the world, you have places like Dar es Salaam in Africa, that's projected to be one of the mega cities, where the population growth is anticipated to put that city over the top, so to speak.

           Traffic will be just a nightmare. But if we have air taxes and if we have matured that technology to a point where people are comfortable in taking air taxis, that would be a great victory for all humanity. So, that's our fifth megatrend.

           Finally, I think these megatrends won't sustain themselves, if we don't reexamine our curriculum.

           In higher education, I think it's very important for aerospace engineering departments all over the world, to take a look, to step back and look at how we are training our students. Are we actually teaching the students the right material, so that when they enter the workforce they are prepared to enter a new area, areas that are going to be shaped by these megatrends?

           So that's the answer, Joe, to those five questions. I think I'm very excited to be an aerospace engineer at this time and also to lead a department because I think change is going to happen.

           It's a dynamic field, and I'm excited that I'm caught up in this big transformation that's occurring in higher education.

Joe Anselmo:

Well, thank you for that. You gave me a great setup to my first question, Dr. Waas, which is, university professors often stay on the job for a long time. How are these teachers going to be able to adapt, to deliver these different skill sets to the next generation of students and workers?

Dr. Anthony Waas:

That's a great question. It's a great challenge that we are facing right now. I don't think aerospace has faced challenge of this magnitude, in the sense that we are retooling our equipment, so to speak, but we are not letting go of our fundamentals. Right?

           Aerospace engineers, always will have a requirement for fundamental skillsets embedded in fluid mechanics, structural mechanics, material science, computer science, data science.

           I think those fundamental skillsets will still stay with us. We will also be looking at areas such as hypersonics, which are oscillatory, but which are very important for national security.

           In fact, I would argue that we have one of the best collection of faculty members who are experts in hypersonics.

           So, we will still have certain fundamental areas that have shaped aerospace engineering to be strengths. However, we are retooling and re-gearing our faculty as well as changing our direction, so that we can get incorporated and get busy with research projects that are coming down in these megatrends.

           As these megatrends evolve, funding agencies are going to encourage us to write proposals, to address research topics in these megatrends.

           So invariably, the faculty members who are in our department, are going to change their tactics. They're going to gear, take those fundamental skills and apply to these megatrends, so that we can train the next generation appropriately.

Joe Anselmo:

Graham Warwick, good time to bring you into the conversation. Since you were an engineering student, a lot has changed. A lot still needs to change, I think in your opinion, in education, to keep up with all the change in our industry.

Graham Warwick:

Yeah. I think that the point that was made about the fundamentals is very true. I mean, if I go back to my many, many decades ago, aerospace engineering training, it was those fundamentals.

           I mean, they are the same now as they were back then, but what I think has changed is... I mean, I was at Ann Arbor. I did a visit there. Several of the universities I've been to, there's way more hands-on activity, project-based activity now.

           I think that's the key to teaching people how to manage a project, which is what most of them will end up doing in aerospace, is being project managers or something like that. But also, I think it brings in this multidisciplinary aspect.

           That is truly, I think the toughest challenge to me is, as people, we tend to want to specialize. But as an industry, we need people who can reach across disciplines, because the difficult challenges in engineering are always between disciplines, where you're trying to get two or more different types of sciences together, to work together.

           That's always where the great challenges are, but it's where you get the reward if you make it work. So, I think that's one of the keys.

           I think industry is much more engaged in supporting universities, putting money into, to enable universities to do the research. I think that's a good sign.

           We probably need more of that. We probably do need, somehow or other, more engagement by working engineers in the education of future engineers. Because my experience was that, most of my teachers, while they knew the fundamental skills, their experience was aging because they had worked on aircraft that were quite old by then. Things had moved on.

           Didn't change the fundamental skills, but it changed their actual knowledge of what was happening at the time. So, I think that if you can get the active workforce engaged in the education as well.

           One of the things that I'd be interested in knowing is, you've mentioned these fundamental skillsets, but when you look at things like sustainability, space, autonomy, these are very hot topics amongst young people.

           They're passionate about sustainability. They're fascinated by autonomy and robotics. Space is still very aspirational. So, I'm wondering whether or not you're seeing, that's helping getting people in the door.

           Either are more people interested in being involved with that and maybe making a difference in sustainability by working in engineering? But also whether you need different skillsets, additional skills that you need to go look for, if you're going to be working in sustainability or autonomy or something like that, that are beyond just those fundamental aerospace skills.

           I'd be interesting to know if you've identified any other skills that you think you need to look for and develop in people.

Dr. Anthony Waas:

That's a great question, Graham. I think part of the answer lies in how you started to answer and tell your own background and experience.

           I think the answer is in the fact that more project-based learning is occurring right now, compared to let's say 25 to 30 years ago.

           For example, Model-Based Systems Engineering is a classic subject, where different disciplines are coming together in understanding how platforms evolve, how a design is done.

           So fundamental skills, yes, but we are also bringing in teamwork. We are bringing in different people, with different expertise, to work together. So, these projects definitely cross multiple disciplines. It's not siloed, as it used to be in the past.

           These are projects where a lot of skillsets are coming together and the team then starts looking at a problem in a very holistic manner.

           So I think the role of high education, and we've always done this in Ann Arbor, is to provide the pipeline for future leaders.

           One of the things we are doing, is we are introducing a new master's of engineering, an online master's of engineering that combines aerospace engineering skills with business skills.

           This program is going to launch in January of next year, January 2023, with INSEAD. INSEAD is a top business school in France. We've combined to come up with what is called the EnMeg Online in Aerospace Leadership, because what we want are that the future leaders in the aerospace enterprise to be engineers, engineers who are equipped with the correct skillsets in business, in negotiation, in understanding budgets, et cetera. So, that's a master's program.

           Now we also feel, and there's a real realization and an understanding and a recognition by our faculty, that we need to be flexible in training future aerospace engineers. Meaning that, we are broadening the available courses to our undergraduates.

           Graham brought the important topic of robotics. In Ann Arbor, we have now created the very first robotics department in the college of engineering.

           One of the departments that's collaborating with the robotics department in a very close manner, is aerospace engineering because robotics is going to play a central role for future space engineers.

           So, here we have a new set of courses that our undergraduates can take and make their skillset broader by knowing more about robotics. We are facilitating that by allowing more electives and more technical electives to go into those types of skills.

           So, the answer is yes. We are cognizant of changes that are occurring in our industry, but we are not going to let go of our training in fundamentals. But what we are going to do, is we are going to shape the way the training is done, by exposing our students to two important aspects.

           One, team work and cutting across disciplines. And then working in new topics, such as robotics and computer science, coming into aerospace training. As time goes on, these will be viewed also, as fundamentals for the future aerospace engineers.

Graham Warwick:

I would imagine that when you bring in sustainability, you're going to make new connections because you're going to have to connect with the meteorological sciences and the understanding of the atmosphere, understanding the chemistries of the atmosphere.

           There's a lot we still don't know about sustainability. We don't fully understand contrails. We don't fully understand some of these forcing functions.

           So, I can imagine that just like robotics, that you will end up having to reach across into other disciplines, outside of your aerospace department, to create project-based things that bring in very different skills.

Dr. Anthony Waas:

Yes, Graham, this is a great question. In fact, we were just talking about it yesterday. This is one of the reasons why we, meaning aerospace engineering at Michigan and the department that is called climate and space sciences, we got together in Ann Arbor. We created the University of Michigan Space Institute.

           We did that precisely for what Graham is talking about. Climate science, there's a lot that is not known. And as climate scientists engage in new science and new understanding of things like contrails, in new understanding of aerosols, in new understanding of how climate is regulated, we as aerospace engineers, we will have to learn those topics well in order to design our vehicles better. So, that's a necessity.

           The U of M Space Institute, the University of Michigan Space Institute is precisely that vehicle that brings in climate scientists, atmospheric scientists, space scientists together with the aerospace engineers here in Ann Arbor, to forge this new area that involves close-knit collaboration between climate scientists and the aerospace engineers in Ann Arbor. That's precisely why we did that.

Joe Anselmo:

Dr. Waas, you talked about how Michigan is trying to evolve how it teaches aerospace engineering. Is there a wider effort afoot? You talked about collaboration with an institution in France. Do you talk with your peers at other universities? I mean, is there a collective effort to tackle this challenge, or is it just university by university?

Dr. Anthony Waas:

I think there's efforts, multiple efforts going on at different universities. I'm not sure that all universities agree on what the best path to take in the future.

           We at Ann Arbor, we've always taken this attitude that we are a department that is strong in the fundamentals, but that we must be cognizant of changes that are occurring in our profession, and then cater our talents and our training to what's going around us in the broader aerospace enterprise.

           In fact, this is why we undertook this new strategic planning exercise that we did with the company leader, who is our leader of the industry advisor board, Kevin Michaels. He runs the aerodynamic advisory that looks at global trends in the aerospace market.

           It was very fortunate that Kevin is an ally of our department. He was instrumental in working with our faculty members to actually put together these strategic trusts, which now became a strategic plan for the next five to 10 years.

           So we are always cognizant of the need to be strong in fundamentals, like what Graham just alluded to, but be aware of changes that are occurring around us.

           We do work very closely with our industry advisory board, which is full of people who are leaders in the aerospace industry. So, we are very cognizant of the industry needs.

           One of the big needs, as I just told a few minutes ago, is the workforce for the new space industry.

           We are very aware of that. And when we take surveys of our incoming students, many of the students, about 50 to 60% of the students say they want to work in this space industry. They want to do something related to space. So, that's a lot of excitement about that.

           I think as time goes on, the space industry will become like the aeronautics industry that was in the last century.

           Because if you look back a hundred years, about right now, when the aeronautics industry was taking off, private investors started investing in airplanes. That is happening right now in the space industry.

           You have Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic. They're putting their own private money into the space industry.

           So, I think in the next 30 to 40 years, we are going to see a booming space economy, that is going to be like what the aerospace industry was in the past century. Between 1930 to 1960, there was a massive growth in aeronautical engineering. I anticipate similar growth in the space sector.

Joe Anselmo:

Graham, you agree with him?

Graham Warwick:

Oh, absolutely, but I also think there's going to be a blurring between... We tend to think of aviation and space and within aviation, we tend to break it down.

           I think there's going to be a blurring of things because of things like autonomy and other engineering skills, that read across so many of these.

           When we talk about autonomy, we tend to think of driverless cars or unmanned aircraft, but we're now looking at, large constellations for satellites are quite labor intensive to manage. But if we can make these satellites of autonomous behaviors in space, then you can sort of start to do some clever things. So, I see there's going to be great blurring.

           One of the questions I wanted to ask is, to what extent do you as a university, feel responsibility for reaching down to the education levels below you?

           Because you're going to ask the people coming into your university to have a much more flexible mindset, than maybe a traditional engineer has.

           They've got to be prepared to be multidisciplinary. They've got to be prepared to be collaborative. They've got to be prepared to use tools in a creative way and not in a rote, functional way.

           To what extent do you need to reach down into the previous layers of education and start to get those skills being born and nurtured, so that when they come into your system, they're already ready to go?

Dr. Anthony Waas:

Right. Graham, it's a great question. So we've started doing a little bit of this, but then the pandemic took us back. But now we are going to get into big time, as we move forward and that's outreach.

           I'm a strong believer that we as educators in a university, must do outreach, in the sense that we have to get our high schoolers and middle schoolers excited about engineering, about the broad spectrum of things that engineers can do and will do.

           So, raising awareness is a major responsibility, I think, for a educator like myself.

           One of the things we've done, is we've identified a few schools, a few high schools, few middle schools where our faculty members go and give a talk, spend some time talking about what they're doing, why they're doing it and how it is useful to society.

           And by doing that, we raise awareness. We plant a seed among these young minds, about what aerospace engineers really do. I think that's going to be very important, Graham.

           I think more universities and more individuals involved in higher education, ought to think of it as a responsibility.

           Now, I don't know of any way we can mandate that, but I think we take it seriously here in Ann Arbor. I think a lot of faculty members would agree with me, that it is a good thing to get younger people excited about our field and about the possibilities, about the great careers that they can have in our field.

           I'm actually excited about doing that myself, going to high schools, going to middle schools and talking about, what do aerospace engineers actually do?

           To my surprise, I found that there is a lack of awareness. There's confusion. There's lack of awareness about what we really do. It's not anybody's fault, but I think it's kind of some things that just get lost, when we don't really think of the big picture.

           So, workforce development, I think we'll have to rely pretty heavily on that. I think Aviation Week and other channels that can reach many, many people, can help us by making it an important responsibility I think, for higher educators to reach out to the younger, the future generations that are going to be us.

Joe Anselmo:

When we speak of higher education in the US, we almost just default to saying it's world class, best in class.

           But when you look out there around the world, particularly to emerging markets or growing markets, such as China and India, are other nations rising up and maybe competing with what we have to offer here in the US?

Dr. Anthony Waas:

Yes, absolute, Joe. This is happening. We can't really rest on our past laurels, as we used to do before.

           Was it Friedman who said the world has got flatter? This means that the reach for you to do things to compete and to, for example, get a person on Mars first, this is no longer... It used to be a foregone conclusion, that the US is going to do that, but I don't think we can rely on that anymore.

           I think other countries are getting up there. They're becoming competitive, and they have their own aspirations.

           I look at that as being actually quite good. I think that competition is very good. It challenges you to reach out and not be complacent, to always look out for what's important for the future.

           I think it's a good challenge for us to take on and to become leaders and to always look for the next best alternative, the next best thing that's out there for aerospace engineering.

           I think Graham pointed out something that's very important. That is, there's a lot to be learned in climate science. And a lot to be learned in space, as well.

           I think those things will translate to engineers having to create a future that has never been like before. That will actually help us to, again, become leaders.

           So, I think it's a race. I'm happy to say that we are, I think still ahead of these other countries, but I don't want to rest on past laurels.

           I want to be able to ask myself every day a question of, what should we do? What's the next best step, for us to get to from where we are to that next place, where we want to be?

Joe Anselmo:

Graham Warwick, would you like the final word?

Graham Warwick:

No. I'm actually encouraged to see that the higher educators are taking this seriously and looking at it from a real bottoms-up. These are definitely the mega challenges that we're dealing with.

           I also think they're topics that excite people if they are introduced to them. So, I think sustainability is going to generate a whole new generation of scientists who want to do something about sustainability.

           So if we as aerospace, can tap into that to desire to do something for the earth, then we can do good things with that.

           So, reaching down into the lower levels of education, getting them involved in projects, exposing them to project-based thinking at an early stage.

           I wish I'd been able to do that as a kid at school. I mean, I'd have loved to have had some sort of aerospace-related project when I was at high school, that would've then led me into university.

           So I think that if we could tap into this desire of people to do something about good for the earth, to explore space, to develop robotics that help people, I think that we can bring people into this industry, in a way that we haven't maybe been able to do for some time 'cause we haven't had these sort of aspirational challenges.

           That's a strange term, but we've not had these challenges that people generally want us to do something about, for aerospace to focus on.

           So, I actually think that these challenges are something that aerospace can use to re-stoke that passion for aerospace that was there 50, 60 years ago.

Joe Anselmo:

Well, I was going to ask you Graham, if you thought Dr. Waas is ever going to take an air taxi from his house to his office, but that's the topic for a whole nother podcast. So, we'll address that in the future.

           Dr. Waas, thank you so much for your time today. Graham, thanks for joining us.

           That is a wrap for this week's Check 6.

           Join us again next week. And if you're interested in business aviation, don't miss Aviation Week's BCA Podcast, which was recorded at this week's eBay show in Geneva, Switzerland. You can find the BCA Podcast wherever you're listening to this one.

           One last request. If you're listening in Apple Podcast and want to support Check 6, please leave us a star or write us a review. Have a great week, and thank you for your time.

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.