Learning to Fly: Boeing’s AerosPACE Takes Flight

Aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. has a message for all colleges and universities: You’re not doing a very good job at preparing students for our workforce — so we’re going to help you.

Like many manufacturers that rely on an annual flow of work-ready engineering graduates, Boeing has struggled to consistently find entry-level candidates with the skills it needs to stay ahead in the competitive aerospace industry, which logged a record $729 billion in revenue in 2014, according to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. 

But rather than taking on engineering grads and putting them through a rigorous training program, Chicago-based Boeing has decided to close its skills gap by working directly with students before they leave school, with the hope of recruiting them once they graduate.

 “Our plan is to close the skill gap by helping colleges create an experiential, project-based program that more closely aligns with the industry’s needs,” said Fabien Zender, an engineering performance coach at 165,000-employee Boeing.

Enter Aerospace Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering, or AerosPACE, a program Boeing launched in 2013 through which the company’s executives work with professors at partnering schools to develop a collaborative engineering capstone course.

To help build the various components of AerosPACE for universities, Boeing has partnered with organizations like CorpU, NASA and Siemens. Each partner has provided tools, training and support to the program. 

Now a little more than two years in, the program has partnered with a few universities, including Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Company executives say the effort has gained momentum, with about 50 students currently graduating from the program annually. The goal is to top 100 graduates in 2016.

Still, getting more schools to participate — and to relinquish some control over their course content — remains a challenge. Executives also say the company has yet to fully configure a fast-track recruiting process for participating students. As a result, executives say the number of recruits from the program remains unclear.

“We want to prepare students to enter the aerospace profession and enhance student competencies using the latest research and technology,” said Michael Richey, associate technical fellow of engineering education resources at Boeing and one of the program leaders.

Aligning Academics With Industry

The so-called skills gap has been well documented. For years, manufacturers and other trade employers have pointed to the growing disconnect between what colleges and universities are teaching and the skills new hires need to work in trade fields — like the ability to work on a dispersed team, problem-solve in a group and project management.

Corporations and universities have historically engaged in more passive partnerships. Seventy-six percent of companies offer internships to students and 69 percent set up tables at campus career fairs, according to a 2015 report from the Human Capital Institute, a human-resources trade group. But just 35 percent of employers partner with schools for research and development and just 30 percent help design courses, the report said.

“There is definitely a gap between what faculty think students need and the actual skills they need to be well-equipped for the modern environment,” said Steven Gorrell, associate professor of mechanical engineering at BYU.

Such a gap is expected to endure. According to a report from The Manufacturing Institute and management consulting firm Deloitte, over the next decade nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs are expected to become available, 2 million of which are expected to go unfilled. Additionally, more than 75 percent of executives surveyed in the report said the skills gap is likely to affect their ability to meet demand, implement new technologies and increase productivity.

For years, Boeing has been part of a consortium of college and industry leaders whose goal is to help colleges and industry become more aligned. While many such consortiums turn to executive advisory councils and other informal gatherings to link academic with industry skills communication, Boeing wanted to take it a step further. By having more direct influence over course content while students were still in school, Boeing executives could ensure graduate skills aligned with the industry’s needs.

“The idea was to reach deeper into the talent pipeline, to develop learning opportunities at colleges that employers wish students would have,” said Alan Todd, CEO of CorpU, a virtual learning platform and Boeing’s content partner on AerosPACE.

AerosPACE’s overarching goal is to help students develop the core skills needed to be successful on the job. Although participating in the program doesn’t guarantee a job, the goal of the program is to make sure they are positioned to secure an interview. “The kids coming out of this program are highly qualified, which Boeing really needs,” Richey said.

Over two semesters, participating students work together to design, build and test an unmanned aerial vehicle under the guidance of professors and Boeing mentors, who also watch to see which students thrive in which areas of the program.

But these students don’t just build any flying machine. Each year, the program sets a different theme or “grand challenge” based on the long-term skills and societal issues that Boeing has identified as a priority. In 2014, the focus was on solving social problems related to population growth.

“By 2045, there will be 9 billion people on earth,” Richey said. So students were tasked with figuring out how to leverage unmanned airborne vehicles to address this need. “The students came up with designs for aircraft to map topography, measure farm yields, and to help increase crop production,” Richey said.

For 2015, students focused on creating an aircraft to meet first-response needs, like finding lost hikers or rescuing survivors after a disaster. “We don’t expect them to build a first-response vehicle, but it has to be part of their design vision,” Zender said.

Once the theme is set, professors at each school put out fliers promoting the program encouraging students to apply. And while Boeing lets each school know what they are looking for in students — diverse backgrounds, interest in aerospace and some internship experience — student selection is ultimately left up to professors.

Competition is fierce. Last year at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, another participating school, 190 students applied for eight spots, Richey said.

No ‘I’ in Team

AerosPACE is currently operating at three other universities besides BYU and Purdue: Georgia Tech University in Atlanta; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; and Tuskegee (Alabama) University. Professors at each school take the lead in running the program, with the support of Boeing’s executive experts.

Up to 10 seniors are chosen to participate at each school; they then are assigned teammates at the other schools and together collaborate to design and build an aircraft. Students work together virtually using the CorpU platform’s virtual communities, as well as Skype and email to brainstorm ideas, share documents and develop project materials.

That process includes everything from writing a business plan and requests for proposals; designing the craft using 3-D modeling software; managing budgets and schedules; troubleshooting design theories; assembling the vehicle; and taking it for test flight.

“Students get the experience of moving through the entire design-build-fly process on a distributed team,” Richey said.

One of the most important aspects of the program is that the challenge cannot be completed by any one student because of the project’s technical complexity, Boeing executives say. It requires the knowledge of the entire dispersed team to be successful — exactly what project teams experience at Boeing.

“We have engineers all over the world working collaboratively, and employees need to understand how to be a productive part of those teams,” Richey said.  “These students have a chance to be exposed to all of those challenges.”

That means not only can students take advantage of the unique expertise of their teammates, but also that they have to learn how to work together despite their different backgrounds, knowledge and approach to projects. “The challenge isn’t just about working remotely,” Gorrell said. “They also have to deal with different design strategies and skill sets of their teammates.”

Once students are assigned to a team, they work together using a variety of technologies, including computer-aided design software and collaboration strategies to design and develop the craft. They also attend mentoring sessions and workshops, take online courses and listen to presentations from industry leaders as part of the program.

The students are encouraged to engage leading-edge technologies and advanced manufacturing processes to solve design challenges. “Students get credit for being innovative,” BYU’s Gorrell said, even if the innovations don’t always work. “We need innovation in our industry, and that will come from academic proficiencies.”

Boeing performance coaches mentor the students by helping them think about new ways to solve problems. The students also work with industry experts to brainstorm ideas and to harness new design strategies. This year, first responders met with the students to talk about the capabilities they might need from an unmanned airborne vehicle to help inform students’ designs, Richey said.

And last year, to accomplish their design goals in the time and budget allowed, one team of students printed the entire body of their vehicle using a 3-D printer. “They worked with Stratasys on the aerodynamics and wing geometry, printed right and left versions of the wings, and put the motor in the center,” Richey said. 

Each week, students meet with their faculty coach and Boeing mentors, either in person or virtually, to report on their progress and set goals for the week. They also watch video lectures, take virtual training courses and work together using the online collaboration platform hosted by CorpU.

During the program, professors grade students on their progress, problem-solving skills, participation and achievement of goals. Professors only responsible for grading their own students, though they may work with faculty at partner schools to share updates and information on the overall team performance.

Professors and Boeing leaders also review analytics from the CorpU platform on how students performed in the online courses and participated in online forums, and how frequently they interacted with others on their teams.

The early research is focused on understanding student interaction patterns, but the team says it hopes to use the data to customize the program for expansion into community colleges and postsecondary degree pathways.

Teams get points for how well they work together and the results of the project itself — including how innovative their designs are and whether they hit key deadlines, managed costs and delivered a functioning vehicle.

“It’s not meant to be a contest, though there is a lot of friendly competition,” Zender said. “Rather, it is a study in how well they collaborate to achieve their goals.”

While students don’t have to successfully fly the aircraft to pass the class, many of the teams to date have. One of the vehicles designed by a student team is still in use in Purdue’s aerodynamics class to demonstrate how aircraft function in a wind tunnel. Others are used to spur students’ interest in the program.

Richey said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of these projects turn into marketable products. One of this year’s teams, for instance, built a first-response vehicle for $2,500 that rivals a $25,000 vehicle currently used by the American Red Cross.

The vehicle, dubbed Betty BEAR (Back-country Emergency Air Responder) is an unmanned rescue vehicle that uses thermal imaging and a video camera to locate lost victims in remote locales. “I would not be surprised if that team starts their own company,” Richey said.

Recruiting Graduates and Universities

More important than their grade, however, is the fact that the students who come out of AerosPACE are better prepared to work at Boeing or any other major manufacturing organization. “The collaboration part of AerosPACE teaches them how to optimize the capabilities of the team, and to work together to solve problems,” Zender said. “Those are skills they normally wouldn’t get exposed to until they are on the job for a while.”

Zender argued that no other course or internship opportunity provides students with this kind of experience. “The intensity of the program, the focus on functionality and the project life cycle exposure is invaluable in getting them ready for the work we do,” Zender said.

The challenge now is making sure they get into the company once the program is complete. Most students in theAerosPACEprogram who aren’t going on to graduate school apply for jobs at Boeing. But because of the company’s size — it typically hires 300 to 400 new grads each year — it can be difficult for these candidates to find themselves on Boeing recruiters’ radar. ­­

The program leaders say they are still hammering out formal processes to ensure these students get fast-tracked in the recruiting process. While they don’t have specific data on the number of students hired, Richey said that the company has offered interviews to all interested students and extended “multiple offers.” 

To eliminate future hiring gaps, however, the team says it has begun pulling department heads onto the AerosPACEadvisory board to help shape the program and to make them aware of the value of incoming recruits. “We want to make it programmatic, so that when these students apply online their application is sent directly to the right person,” Zender said.

Involving internal leaders has helped generate some excitement about the students and the program in general. Richey said once Boeing’s chief engineer became familiar with the program, he now wants to hire all of AerosPACE grads, and is encouraging Richey to expand the program so there is a larger talent pool to pull from.

Ultimately, the AerosPACEteam would like to have several hundred students in the program, though it’s not simply a matter of inviting more schools to participate. Getting universities onboard for this kind of project isn’t easy. “The traditional academic structure is misaligned with this kind of learning activity,” Richey said.

Indeed, BYU’s Gorrell said that capstone programs in particular are sacred to many universities, and asking professors to make changes to that aspect of their curriculum can be a tough sell. “They are very sensitive about these things,” Gorrell said.

To get universities to participate, the AerosPACEteam has had to work to find academics that are willing to spearhead the necessary culture change and embrace a more project-focused, experiential-learning environment. That means they have to be willing to mentor students at other schools, change their approach to grading and judging performance, and integrate other academics and industry experts into the development and delivery of their courses.

“They aren’t incentivized to do any of this, and it’s a big change,” Richey said. “So they really have to believe in it.”

The AerosPACE team has tried to overcome this pushback by talking up the opportunity professors will have to be innovators in their fields, to publish papers on their results and to secure grants for their future work. Boeing also taps current faculty, like Gorrell, to talk to potential participants about how the program works, including how the curriculum is developed and how students are graded.

Finding academics with past industry experience also helps. BYU’s Gorrell had an 18-year career in the U.S. Air Force before switching to academia. “I know these students don’t get all of the skills they need to jump right into the workforce,” Gorrell said. “I saw how this program could help them hit the ground running.”

Gorrell said he ultimately hopes more academics will see the benefit of engaging in programs that provide their students with this kind of real-world learning opportunity. “By partnering with industry, we can bring more students into the STEM fields and train them to be more effective in the companies that hire them,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math.

 That not only will help close the skill gap but also might drive companies like Boeing to spend less time and money training new hires. “It’s the way we should be teaching students in the future,” Zender said.