AE History: How Far We’ve Come

By Vee Glessner, Chief Copy Editor

Photo: An original sign for Aerospace Engineering faculty offices which hung on the now-demolished Building 61 until it was torn down to build AXFAB. A student at the time saw this sign being discarded by the construction crew and took it home with her. In November, she reached out to Department Chair Dr. Mark Sensmeier to return the sign, saying that she felt it was time for it to come home. The sign now lives in Dr. Sensmeier’s office.

The Aerospace Engineering program at Embry-Riddle Prescott is one of the most well-known at the school, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the ERAU Prescott campus was purchased from Prescott College in 1978 as a service to Daytona Beach – students would go to Prescott for a year or two and then transfer to Daytona, which was running out of space for its growing enrollment. Quickly, the Prescott site grew a spirit of its own and would become regarded as a peer campus.

Before the College of Engineering, there were only a couple of Engineering programs started around the same time: Aeronautical Engineering (AE) and Electrical Engineering (EE). The first group of Aeronautical Engineers in 1979 was just 45 students: “It grew by leaps and bounds,” says Eileen Klein, the first secretary of the AE department. 

In 2007, the Mechanical Engineering (ME) degree was launched, and now the college has five engineering programs: Aerospace, Mechanical, Electrical, Software, and Computer Engineering. But in the early days, the degrees didn’t fall under one Engineering umbrella: it wasn’t until 1998 that all the programs were merged into the College of Engineering (COE). Around the same time, the degree name was changed to Aerospace Engineering with the introduction of more space-focused courses. 

All along, the engineering programs have boasted hands-on experiences and project-based learning that students can apply directly to careers in the field. “It’s always been our forte that we turn out really good engineers that can jump straight into industry,” says Dr. Mark Sensmeier, Chair of the Aerospace Engineering Department since 2009.

More than 20 years later, the AE program is the largest on campus, with enrollment peaking at over 800 students in 2019. By 2020, the program reached 21 percent female, another record. Surprisingly, female enrollment in the AE program holds its own with the student body as a whole: the campus is now at 26 percent female, a marked increase from an abysmal 2 percent in the inaugural year of 1978.

Overall, individuals involved with both the formative and modern eras of the College of Engineering feel that the culture of the programs has kept them growing over more than 40 years. “When I talk to people about why we’re such a great program, I always boil it down to three things: the students, faculty, and the facilities,” says Dr. Ron Madler, Dean of the College of Engineering since 2010.

In 2008, Aerospace Engineering surpassed the Aeronautical Science program as the degree with the largest enrollment and has continued to grow. It’s also the majority of the enrollment in the COE, accounting for two-thirds of the students in engineering. “When you consider Prescott and Daytona, Embry-Riddle’s [undergraduate] Aerospace Engineering program is the largest in the country,” according to Dr. Madler.

Besides enrollment numbers, the engineering facilities at ERAU Prescott are also relatively unmatched in the undergraduate world. One thing that makes the COE and even ERAU unique, says Dr. Madler, is that undergraduates get the spotlight. “Facility-wise, we kept getting better facilities and keeping the undergraduate focus. Other institutions, they may have phenomenal facilities, but the focus has totally shifted to graduate students.”

Likewise, while many well-renowned schools produce impressive research and projects, the faculty in ERAU engineering programs pride themselves on their student focus. “Being with the students is really what we’re here to do, particularly undergraduate students,” says Dr. Sensmeier. Most faculty come from industry backgrounds, not pure academia, and want to work with students, not dedicate the majority of their time to research projects.

The Prescott AE program has been nationally recognized by U.S. News and World Report, ranking at #1 for four years in a row in the category Undergraduate Aerospace / Aeronautical / Astronautical for schools that do not offer a Doctorate in Engineering. ERAU’s ranking tops big names such as California Polytechnic University (CalPoly) and the U.S. Air Force and Naval Academies. 

“National recognition has become a really important thing,” says Dr. Madler. When U.S. News first started releasing the ranking years ago, the Daytona Beach campus sat at the #1 spot, but Prescott overtook its sister campus as it has grown. The large, proud pool of alumni from both campuses has no small influence on ERAU’s brand and recognition either, Dr. Madler says.

The Aerospace program achieved its first ABET Accreditation in 1986, just six years after its inception, and the credential has been continuously renewed ever since. ABET has assessed the program objectives, student outcomes, curriculum, faculty, facilities and many more factors and found ERAU worthy of engineering accreditation.

That’s where we are now. We’ll be uncovering much more about the rich history of the Aerospace Engineering program in a series of articles throughout upcoming Horizons releases. Special thanks to Dr. Ron Madler, Dr. Mark Sensmeier, Eileen Klein, Tracy Doryland, and Dr. Richard Felton for their contributions to this series. Data is sourced from the College of Engineering unless otherwise noted.