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Riccardo Bonazza with the wind tunnel
April 8, 2021

New aerospace option helps launch careers

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The aerospace industry offers many career opportunities for engineers, who can apply their skills to challenges involving rockets, spacecraft, airplanes and more.

Now, undergraduate students in the UW-Madison engineering mechanics degree program can focus their education on this field by selecting the new “aerospace engineering option.”

In fall 2020, the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics changed the name of its longstanding astronautics option to the aerospace option.

“When the astronautics option was created it was focused on space and so the name fit,” says Engineering Physics Professor Matt Allen. “And while many of our graduates still go to work on launch vehicles, satellites and other space-related technologies, the program now includes some great courses regarding aircraft, and the jobs that our students get reflect this shift. The new name better reflects the courses that we now teach and the jobs that our students get.”

Engineering Physics Chair Paul Wilson says another reason for the name change is that the term “aerospace” has much better name recognition for both students and employers. “So the aerospace label will make it easier for our students to connect with companies at career fairs and elsewhere,” says Wilson, Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering.

And because the aerospace option is based in the department’s highly regarded engineering mechanics degree program, students receive a well-rounded education and develop versatile skills. For example, in the engineering mechanics degree program, students learn the fundamentals of mechanics and dynamics—topic areas that are key for aerospace applications but also for a broad range of other applications and industries.

While the aerospace option at UW-Madison is not a full ABET-accredited aerospace engineering degree, Engineering Physics Professor Riccardo Bonazza says UW-Madison’s program has a strong track record of launching students’ careers.

“Our students find great jobs in the aerospace industry and they are very successful,” Bonazza says.

UW-Madison engineering mechanics graduates have gone on to work at NASA, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, GE Aviation, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Joby Aviation, and ATA Engineering, among others. An EMA graduate even founded his own company, Dark Aero, together with his two brothers, also graduates of UW-Madison College of Engineering.

When Bonazza keeps in touch with students after they graduate, he always asks if their education prepared them well for their jobs, and if the program missed any important areas. “And the students say, ‘Our UW-Madison education was very effective and covered all the right areas. We’re able to perform at a high level and really contribute when we join these companies,’” Bonazza says.

Because the engineering mechanics program has a relatively small number of students, Bonazza says there is a close-knit community feel and smaller class sizes, which enables faculty to have more direct interaction with students and develop a good rapport.

“I think that’s one of the great advantages of this program,” Bonazza says. “The students and faculty pretty much know everyone’s name, and the students study together and really benefit from these interactions. It’s an effective, highly positive learning environment that the students enjoy participating in.”

A strong academic foundation

Grainger Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics Chair Paul Wilson says renaming the option also made sense because aerospace is a more fitting label for the astronautics option’s evolution as new faculty joined the department and created courses focused on aerospace topics.

Astronautics refers to the science and technology of vehicles that travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere into space—rockets, spacecraft and satellites, for example. On the other hand, aerospace engineering refers to the study of navigation both inside and outside of the Earth’s atmosphere—so it encompasses both the science of airplanes and flight as well as technology for outer space.

Professor Riccardo Bonazza has played a crucial role in shaping the aerospace curriculum into what it is today. In the 1990s, Bonazza took over teaching EMA 521: Aerodynamics, after Professor Alois “Bud” Schlack retired, and he revamped the course.

Then, in 1996, Ron Thompson, a faculty associate and instructor, helped acquire a wind tunnel for the college through a donation by Greenheck, a company based in Schofield, Wisconsin. The wind tunnel was designed by two undergraduate students (Matthew Orzewalla, currently at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Marty Gissel, who started his career at Greenheck right after graduating).

With the new wind tunnel on campus, Bonazza jumped at the chance to harness it to provide vital hands-on learning opportunities for students. He developed a new course, EMA 522: Aerodynamics Laboratory, which was first offered in spring 1999. In the lab course, students conduct experiments in the wind tunnel—for example, taking measurements of lift and drag on a wing—and analyze their data.

“The aerodynamics lab is very popular with the students, who say they really value the hands-on experiences they get through working with the wind tunnel,” Bonazza says.

Then, Bonazza developed another new course, EMA 523: Flight Dynamics, which was introduced in 2002. Most recently, Bonazza created EMA 524: Rocket Propulsion, a course that debuted in fall 2013.

Some of the distinctive course requirements of the aerospace option include Advanced Mechanics of Materials, Vibrations, Advanced Dynamics, and Controls.

Popular electives in the aerospace option include Flight Dynamics, Rocket Propulsion, Satellite Dynamics, Astrodynamics, and Experimental Vibrations.