Depending on when you start counting, the 1950s and ‘60s were when astronautics really started to take off in aerospace engineering. Numerous college graduates entered the field as it grew, where they have been working ever since.
But today, NASA is concerned over the fact that a large percentage of the aerospace workforce is going to retire in the next number of years, which is one of many reasons why the aerospace engineering (AE) program implemented the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, which began its 10th installment at the university this summer.
Randi Potekin, an undergraduate in Mechanical Sciences and Engineering, connects an accelerometer to the Smart Office box. An accelerometer is a piezo-electric device that measures acceleration. The acceleration data is inputted into the Smart Office box for the Smart Office software to generate acceleration versus time plots.
“It is very important for undergraduates to have hands-on experiences in engineering because that’s what tends to help firm their commitment to their studies to their major and career,” said Diane Jeffers, AE coordinator of external relations and associate director of the Illinois Space Grant Consortium, which helps with the program’s funding.
UROP, which started at Illinois in 2004, is one of many programs funded by the Illinois Space Grant Consortium. The grant also helps support programs such as Design/Build/Fly – a competition with radio controlled, electric-powered planes – and CubeSat – which allows for students to build and launch satellites.
UROP averages around 15 students a summer depending on funding. The costs are split 50/50 by the NASA grant and the students’ faculty advisers from within the department who supervise the students. Faculty advisers helping with the costs, Jeffers said, allows for the grant money to go further and provides an incentive for the faculty advisers to work closely with their students. The advisers cover the gamut in regards to the topics researched, Jeffers said.
Outside of lab time, the program also offers numerous Professional Development Seminars that cover topics such as how to give a technical presentation, how to write a technical paper and research science ethics.
“I really liked learning about technical writing because I think it’s a really good skill to have and there’s not as heavy of a focus on it in the curriculum,” said Abigail Atkinson, an AE undergraduate who will be participating in UROP for her second summer starting in June. “It was good to get a little outside experience with what the expectations are in the field.”
Michael Loui, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university, or as Jeffers prefers to refer to him, “The ethics guru of the campus,” often speaks at one of the seminars. The students also meet professionals in aerospace outside of academia – ranging from people who work in industry, government labs or as an astronaut – as well as graduate students to get a better sense of what it’s like pursuing academics post-undergraduate. Last year, the students met with members of Northgrop Grumman, an American global aerospace and defense technology company.
“That was really interesting and I really enjoyed hearing them talk about what it’s like to work in industry,” Atkinson said.
The students receive compensation for their work, which begins in June and goes through July and for some the first week in August. Outside of working around 40 hours a week, the students are also required to give a formal presentation and write a five-page extended abstract.
Students from throughout the college of engineering have participated in the program, which usually selects upperclassmen but has accepted sophomores.
“It was a full-time job. I worked in a lab mostly on my own,” Atkinson said. “My advisers gave me the project and they would check in every day to make sure everything was going OK and the equipment was working.”
For students deciding whether to apply for the UROP or pursue an internship elsewhere, Jeffers said much of the distinction is dependent on whether the internship is research related or in industry, which is typically much more application oriented. Jeffers also said the type of research also varies based on the faculty adviser.
Yolanda Dionicio, an Aerospace Engineering undergraduate, uses a saw to cut varying lengths of specimens that contain sacrificial fibers embedded in epoxy resin system. After cutting the desired specimens, Dionicio will place them in the oven for a full evacuation study. The sacrificial fiber will degrade leaving behind empty channels to incorporate a microvascular network into a matrix material.
“It’s a different type of experience. Some people just don’t want to be at school and on campus for three months,” Jeffers said. “But this, I think, gives them a great deal of experience. You have a chance to interact directly with your adviser and working as a team, talking through things with your fellow students. We believe it’s a worth-while experience. A number of our summer interns have continued to work with faculty later on during the school year and some of them have become their graduate students.”
Jeffers said that the program also helps with diversifying the realm of people who go into the areas of math, science and engineering, which is a major focus for NASA.
Atkinson said that graduate school was out of the question prior to participating in UROP but that the has given her more to consider after getting a stronger grasp of what post-undergraduate life is really like.
“Before, I was thinking, ‘No, no grad school at all,’ and now I’m definitely more open-minded toward it,” she said. “My first impressions were definitely wrong. I thought it was going to be more similar to undergrad, but it seems like it’s less structured in terms of classes and you have more freedom to pursue your own research and work more closely with faculty.”
Contact: Diane Jeffers, Department of Aerospace Engineering, dejefferillinois [dot] edu/, 217/244-8048.