It all started with a surprise email from University of Arizona College of Engineering Dean Jeff Goldberg in early November 2014.
The subject of the dean’s message was an even bigger surprise: The College had nominated Smith, who sports a 3.88 GPA in aerospace and mechanical engineering, to represent the University of Arizona at a national workshop on improving engineering education.
Smith was one of only 40 undergraduate and graduate engineering students from more than 185 applicants selected to participate in the workshop, held in Arlington, Virginia, April 10 through 11.
The workshop, which focused on student perspectives, was Phase II of an initiative organized by the American Society for Engineering Education and funded by the National Science Foundation. The initiative, Transforming Undergraduate Education in Engineering, aims to identify the knowledge, skills and abilities tomorrow’s engineers should possess as well as the educational changes needed to instill those qualities.
The first phase of the initiative centered on integrating industry perspectives. Phase III will address participation and retention of women -- with faculty, professional societies, industry representatives and government agencies participating.
Goldberg said Smith was an obvious choice to represent the UA and future engineers.
“Austin’s GPA shows that he has mastered the fundamentals of math, science and engineering we emphasize in our College curriculum. But there’s more to an engineering career than academics,” he said. “Engineers are in the business of designing solutions to societal problems and improving the quality of life. That requires leadership, which Austin has demonstrated many times over.”
More Real-Life Projects and Soft Skills
Smith said he was humbled to be among the nation’s top engineering students and that they all took their mission quite seriously. Their recommendations for improving engineering education included the following:
• Coursework in engineering ethics, economics and communications
• Development of entrepreneurial and soft skills -- leadership, teamwork and negotiating; speaking, writing and listening; and time management
• More emphasis on open-ended projects, with multiple possible solutions, and less on formulaic homework questions
• A culture of mentorship
• A focus on systems-level thinking -- before the senior year
In talking with other students at the conference, Smith came to better appreciate the UA’s robust industry relations, emphasis on multidisciplinary design experiences, and resources available to support design projects.
“There are so many opportunities to get involved on campus and learn from faculty and professionals,” he said, adding, “The industry-standard software we have in the College of Engineering isn’t even available for students at many of the top private schools.”
Try and Try Until You Get It Right
As a former president and active member of the UA student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or AIAA, Smith has sought donations for the group from major corporations, such as Boeing and Orbital Sciences, and developed important relationships with engineering professionals along the way.
He’s also broadened his network through his senior design project, required of nearly all UA Engineering seniors. (See 2015 Engineering Design Day story.) Smith is one of the few project mentors who is not an industry professional or a UA faculty member. He is a player-manager, so to speak. His AIAA-sponsored design project team is working on a macro-fiber composite to improve movement and control of the wings on unmanned aerial vehicles.
His team has tested and tweaked multiple iterations to get it right, and their careful, empirically driven approach is paying off. In addition to demonstrating their project on Engineering Design Day on May 5, Smith’s team will preview it before the College’s top donors on May 1, at the da Vinci Circle annual dinner.
Through his classes, extracurricular activities, senior design project and internships at Raytheon and the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, Smith has moved beyond studying engineering to doing engineering.
“In math, there’s one answer. In engineering, close counts. Iteration gets you there,” he said.
Top picture: Austin Smith, second from left, served as technical mentor for students at a Southern Arizona Rocketry Association launch in 2014.