Aerospace engineers have the exciting job of designing aircraft and spacecraft, from helicopters and private jets to rockets and missiles. To do this job, you need an education filled with math and basic science coursework and with the engineering science and design classes that teach you to apply these concepts. Pursuing a concentration within the field of aerospace engineering can help students prepare for a career that fits their interests.
Science and Math for Aspiring Aerospace Engineers
Mathematics and science are crucial subjects of study no matter what field of engineering you plan to pursue. Engineers put scientific and mathematical theory to work when they design, develop and analyze the equipment, components, systems and processes that solve problems in the real world. Without a thorough foundation in college-level math and basic science, students wouldn’t be familiar enough with these concepts to apply them. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), which accredits degree programs in all branches of engineering, requires that a minimum of one-quarter of the credits needed to graduate be taken in math and science courses.
For aerospace engineering students, mathematics studies should include calculus at increasingly advanced levels of study. The curriculum might also include courses in subjects like differential equations, matrix theory, linear algebra, analytical geometry and numerical analysis. As basic science courses go, physics courses are particularly important in an aerospace engineering program. In addition to taking basic laboratory physics classes, students may take specialized courses that focus on the principles of physics as they pertain to subjects such as mechanics, electricity and magnetism and thermal physics. Laboratory coursework in general chemistry or the fundamentals of chemistry are also common requirements in an aerospace engineering program.
Aspiring aerospace engineers might choose a major with the title “aerospace,” “aeronautical” or “astronautical” engineering. ABET recognizes each of these distinct titles under the umbrella term of aerospace engineering.
Aerospace Engineering Courses
Beyond the math and science courses that provide students with fundamental knowledge, your engineering coursework will be the most important studies for your future. In an ABET-accredited program, students spend at least one and a half years of their college studies on classes in engineering science and engineering design.
ABET has somewhat different curriculum requirements for degree programs in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering. Aeronautical engineering is the specialization concerned with developing aircraft, like planes and helicopters. Students in an aeronautical program must cover topics of aerospace materials, aerodynamics, flight mechanics, propulsion, structures and stability and control. The specialization of astronautical engineering focuses on the design of vessels intended for use outside the Earth’s atmosphere as well as inside it, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Astronautical engineering programs need to include coursework in space structures, space environment, orbital mechanics, rocket propulsion, telecommunications and attitude determination and control. Aerospace engineering programs include studies in both specializations but typically allow students to choose one subject as an area of emphasis.
Some aerospace engineering programs allow students to further focus their education by choosing an academic concentration. Often, students can complete a concentration by dedicating some free electives or technical electives to taking just a few approved courses in the subject area, though how extensive the requirements for a concentration are varies from one school to another. Some of the academic tracks and concentrations you might have the option to pursue as an aerospace engineering student include aircraft flight dynamics, propulsion, controls, space and technology, space and entrepreneurship, space and science, spacecraft dynamics and human factors.
Pursuing a concentration or specialization within aerospace engineering is often optional, rather than mandatory, but it can help you gain specialized knowledge that will impress a prospective employer.
Work Experience in Aerospace Engineering
Gaining the work experience you need for an entry-level job is a common concern for students of all degree fields, and aerospace engineering is no exception. You can’t learn everything you need to know about designing aircraft and spacecraft from lectures or textbooks. Developing the skills to apply science and mathematical theory in your own engineering designs requires hands-on work. An aerospace engineering degree program will include work in the field and in laboratories, as well as in the classroom, according to the BLS.
However, many students choose to improve their chances for career success by attaining more experience during their education. Internships with engineering firms, which may be part-time or full-time and paid or unpaid, can provide a semester of training in a real engineering work environment. Cooperative programs, or co-ops, are paid full-time positions that provide more breadth and depth of training over the course of a year or more.
Even if you don’t participate in an internship or co-op program, you will need to complete a major design experience that explores real-world problems and design constraints before you graduate.