Pitt students search for aerospace program


Image via US Navy

In spite of interest from Air Force ROTC and Swanson school engineers, Pitt does not currently offer an Aerospace program.

By Mary Rose O'Donnell, Staff Writer

From Air Force ROTC cadets to Swanson engineers, many Pitt students yearn for a solid aerospace program that can prepare them for future careers in the United States Air Force and other related aerospace fields.

But Pitt students are unable to gain recognition for any aerospace work they do in their respective programs. Pitt offers no major, minor or certificate in any aerospace-related field.

There are about 100 cadets in Pitt’s AFROTC program, also known as Detachment 730. As a part of this program, cadets must complete ROTC-specific work in and outside of the classroom in addition to their regular undergraduate coursework. These classes cover topics such as Air Force history and current international security matters, and differ from traditional aerospace engineering, which involves the technical side of aerospace-related topics.

Lt. Col. Diana Bishop, the commander of Detachment 730, said over the course of their undergraduate career cadets will take 16 aerospace studies courses, which are required to pursue a career in the Air Force. These courses, along with community service and physical, field and leadership training, accumulate to about 750 hours of work across a cadet’s undergraduate career.

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According to Isabel Murdock, a senior cadet in Pitt’s AFROTC program and electrical engineering and computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, these classes often cause students to go over the 18-credit limit each semester, forcing them to pay for the additional credits that don’t count toward any University-recognized academic requirement.

“They have to pay to take these AFROTC classes and the only reason cadets are taking these classes is so that they can go into the military,” Murdock said. “They get no academic minor, no academic recognition from the school, even though they are paying for the credits.”

William Stephenson, a senior cadet and computer engineering major at Pitt, said he wants to see Pitt recognize the work he and other cadets complete as a part of ROTC.

“We would love to see Pitt recognize the work we put in the form of an academic minor. There has been discussions about an aerospace studies minor. A lot of other universities with AFROTC programs do grant that and give recognition for the time that is put in for ROTC,” Stephenson said.

Fellow Pennsylvania AFROTC institutions, such as Wilkes University, Saint Joseph’s University and Penn State University, all offer an aerospace studies minor. Penn State also offers an aerospace engineering program, something which Pitt students in and out of AFROTC have expressed interest in.

Bishop said their program loses potential students because Pitt does not have an aerospace studies minor or an aerospace engineering program.

“Throughout the year, we interview a lot of high school students for AFROTC scholarships. Many of them are interested in aerospace engineering. Because Pitt doesn’t offer an aerospace engineering curriculum as a part of their core engineering curriculum, we lose them to other schools,” Bishop said. “We want those students to bring their valuable scholarship money to the University of Pittsburgh, but instead they’re taking it to places like Penn State.”

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering does not currently have an aerospace engineering program, but the mechanical engineering and materials science department, also known as MEMS, is the closest thing to it.

Brian Gleeson, the chair of the MEMS department, is aware of the student interest in aerospace engineering, but said the department doesn’t have room to expand yet.

“[Aerospace engineering] is something we would like to do. We do sense there is a demand for it. It’s just a matter of resources and space. We don’t have a lot of room for growth right now. I’m not saying that it can’t happen, but right now it’s not on the table,” Gleeson said.

He said Swanson and the MEMS curriculum provides a solid foundation for students who want to pursue aerospace engineering, but acknowledges the benefits in a dedicated aerospace engineering program.

“Students are given the essential components, but they’re not going to be as competitive as somebody who goes to Purdue or another institution who goes through the aerospace engineering program,” Gleeson said.

Though students cannot take aerospace-specific classes at Pitt, they do have the option to go abroad and take related classes.

Kristine Lalley, the director of International Engineering Initiatives at Swanson, is in charge of developing international education experiences for Swanson students. Lalley said students have gone abroad, mostly to Germany, to receive an aerospace-specific education.

“Those who have taken aerospace engineering classes at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich absolutely had an amazing experience taking these courses and were able to transfer them back to Pitt,” Lalley said.

Gleeson said aerospace student organizations are a great resource for students looking to gain experience in the field. One of these organizations is the Society of Astronautics and Rocketry, formerly known as the Pitt Rocketry Team.

Fernando Tabares, a senior physics and finance major, co-founded the club last September. He and SOAR are preparing to compete in NASA’s Student Launch Competition in April, where teams must create and launch a rocket a mile into the air, then have it land and deploy a rover or drone that must complete specific tasks.

Tabares, who is currently completing an internship in California with Tesla while finishing his undergraduate degree, said a student organization like SOAR is a great opportunity for students who are interested in aerospace.

“Aerospace and astronautical engineering is a very difficult industry to break into. You need experience. A student organization is the ideal way to get actual hands-on experience with hardware while on campus, rather than having to wait and apply for an internship,” Tabares said.

Tabares said the mechanical engineering and physics majors have prepared him for a career in aerospace, but that students are wanting more.

“Programs like Pitt Rocket Team supply an aerospace experience for students. There’s a demand from students like me who want to participate in what we think is a really exciting industry that’s booming right now,” Tabares said. “This organization is doing a really good job right now of meeting that demand.”