(Pictured above: Entire MAE 157A class.)
UCLA MAE Assistant Professor Mitchell Spearrin and his students recently completed a new design-build-launch curriculum for the 157A aerospace capstone class. The team-based course involved the development of student-built rockets and culminated in a launch competition in the Mojave desert. A series of structured labs, each focused around one component of a rocket, were conducted in parallel to the team design project, and covered a range of analytical tools, aerospace materials, manufacturing techniques, and testing methods. The class was taken by approximately 45 AE majors in their senior spring quarter. This article summarizes interviews with Prof. Spearrin and three of his senior students: Sam Dupas, Sean Missimer, and Janelle Rogers.
Prof. Spearrin designed the course to help students prepare for the aerospace industry, which is the desired destination for most AE students. He stated that “in almost all of our classes students solve problems with clean analytical solutions, but real engineering problems are messy. It’s important that engineers understand where simple analysis fails and succeeds. Real problems typically require the application of numerical models that provide approximate solutions and testing of prototypes or system components that involve some trial and error. Both of these approaches—modeling and testing—are part of the general process to design and build products in industry, and I tried to incorporate that into the class.”
Sean Missimer, who plans to return to UCLA as an MAE graduate student next year, emphasized that MAE 157A applied his cumulative knowledge learned as an undergraduate. “The class uses everything that you’ve learned in four years to do lab experiments and some hands-on design project, and the way that Prof. Spearrin did it is that we built a rocket, kind of along the way.” Prof. Spearrin chose to structure the class around rockets in part because of his experience in this area. Years prior to UCLA, he worked at Aerojet Rocketdyne as a Combustion Devices Development engineer, and chemical rockets are a current area of research focus. Additionally, he says that, “if you don’t get excited when watching something you’ve designed and built launch into the sky at 400 mph, you probably shouldn’t be an aerospace engineer.”
Students recognized the connection between the technical tools used in the class and how they will approach problems in industry. Dupas will continue at UCLA to get his AE MS. Afterwards, he’d like to work in the aerospace industry. “I’m hoping to stay in industry. My specialty is going to be in fluid mechanics. I really enjoy doing CFD. I’m hoping to learn a little bit more about how that’s kind of done, work on developing those kind of tools, and apply them to real world problems.” Dupas utilized CFD for analysis of rocket flows during his internship at Edwards Air Force Base last summer and also for aerodynamic analysis in 157A. Missimer discussed his future plans and their connection to the class. “I’m doing my graduate studies in systems and controls. I’m planning on staying in industry. Last year I worked at Northrup Grumman, and I did satellite trajectory analysis for CubeSat missions.” CFD and trajectory analysis were both part of the design-build-launch technical analysis and are common tools used in aerospace. Missimer was amazed how accurate the analysis could be once the models are refined with testing. “For ours, we were just surprised how close we came. Besides the apogee height, we also had to predict the duration. That’s a lot harder to do because your parachute might not deploy properly, there might be winds that carry, there’s all these things that can affect it. Ours we predicted 120 seconds recovery; it ended up being 119 seconds.”
Dupas felt the manufacturing element of the course was particularly valuable and unique. “The most valuable thing I took away from MAE 157A was in doing our own fabrication. It’s really easy to go on the computer and draw up some shapes, and draw up a design, and say ‘this looks great.’ When you actually have to take it into the machine shop, take a part on the lathe or the mill, and actually do that in person, it’s a lot harder than just following the directions on your paper. That’s something that you don’t always get to realize (or appreciate). A lot of your classes, it’s all pen-and-paperwork. That was really the most valuable take-away: understanding how things have to be designed to get real things made.”
Another element emphasized by students was the teamwork required, and appreciation that most industry products must be developed by a team of engineers that have specialized roles. Janelle Rogers is in Air Force ROTC and plans to go into Air Force space operations and flight test engineering. Rogers discussed what she learned in class about teamwork, communication, and back-and-forth design iterations, which all contribute to a successful product. “There had to be so much communication amongst every team member. I was the design engineer on the team, so I was building the SolidWorks CAD model of the rocket. Whatever I made in SolidWorks, it became our rocket. There was communication between me and the trajectory analysis engineer, because we were going back and forth with stability and center of gravity calculations, and he was telling me where I needed to add weight to the rocket to make it stable and what parts I should move around to give us more stability. He was simultaneously running his stability code; we were communicating constantly. That taught me a lot about how that would be in industry. You have to know a little bit about every aspect but be really, really good at your own aspect.” Rogers recommends MAE 157A to both AE and ME majors. “It’s the best class I’ve taken. You want people to want to work with you. You want to be known as a hard worker. I really got out of it that people are depending on you, and that’s how it’s going to be out in the real world too.”
Missimer also emphasized the importance of the teamwork component and also recommended the class for both AE and ME students. “I think teamwork is by far the most important part of it. I would definitely recommend it not just to aerospace engineers but also to mechanical engineers if they’re interested in rocketry at all to definitely take it. Not only is it fun, but the teamwork that you have is absolutely essential, in industry or even academia, whatever you do after you graduate. You have very limited elective classes that you can take. If I were a mechanical engineer, I would definitely use one of my elective classes to take it. Instead of taking another class that you’re just learning out of a book, this is your opportunity to work with other students. If nothing else, you learn from other students more than you would learn by yourself.”
Prof. Spearrin likens the teamwork element to industry as well, and sees it as part of a broader skillset needed by engineers. “In this class, the hope is that the students get to exercise and strengthen their engineering skills. Engineering skills complement the foundational knowledge that we primarily aim to instill in students in their undergraduate courses and are increasingly expected by industry employers. These engineering skills include technical ones like proficiency in common computational tools (for example CAD, CFD, Matlab, and FEA), an understanding of manufacturing processes, and competence in testing methods and measurement techniques. But equally important are the skills of effective verbal and written communication, project management, and team interaction which are part of an engineer’s day-to-day job. These social engineering skills don’t as easily transfer to your resume but can be as significant to job success.” The value of team-based student design projects is well recognized by industry recruiters. “This new aerospace capstone curriculum responds to a need identified by our Industrial Advisory Board (IAB),” added Christopher Lynch, MAE Chair.
Missimer said that although he had fun in the course, it wasn’t easy and that Prof. Spearrin really pushes the students. “He expects you to put in a lot of work. He’s fair about it. He knows that he asks a lot of you. He’s very understanding of that. Assignments are difficult, but they really get you to understand the material, and you leave the class, really understanding it and having an appreciation for it.” To this point, Professor Spearrin says “I like to tell the students that rocket science isn’t meant to be an easy subject to learn.”
Prof. Spearrin hopes to continue the design-build-launch curriculum for years ahead. “We can change the mission objectives and competition criteria to make it a unique experience while using the same approach. This is the way most companies go about developing new products. The process is about the same, while the final products differ.” He pointed out that there were a number of major contributors to the new curriculum. “The TAs, which included graduate students Fabio Bendana, Yi Yan, and Huy Dinh, did a phenomenal job developing and vetting the labs and supporting the student teams in what was a fast pace project. Ben Tan and Dirk Williams on our engineering staff were also very helpful.” The final competition launch was facilitated by volunteers from the Reaction Research Society (RRS), the oldest amateur rocketry organization in the United States. “They hosted us (at their Mojave test area) and were kind enough to demonstrate the launch of two high-power zinc sulfur rockets,” added Rogers. The RRS has also supported the Rocket Project student club this year.
Looking forward, the department is anticipating increased enrollment in MAE 157A next year. “The class was also fun for me,” says Prof. Spearrin. “Given their creative freedom combined with some allowance for trial and error, the students ended up teaching me a lot as well.”