AE History: Evolution of Curriculum and the Astro Track

By Vee Glessner, Chief Copy Editor

Now, Aerospace Engineering students on the Astro track outnumber those on the Aero track, but that’s a recent development. When the Aerospace (then Aeronautical) Engineering program began, there was one main path for students to follow, and it focused on aviation.

The first group of AE students was 42 freshmen, and the plan was for the facilities and course offerings to grow with these students as they progressed through the program. After lengthy discussion among the leadership, it was decided that the AE program in Prescott would mirror the one at Daytona, which had already been offering the degree.

The only class with an AE course code designation offered that first semester was AE101, Introduction to Aeronautical Engineering, which has now been functionally replaced by EGR101. “They took AE101, drafting, and English and prep courses,” says Tracy Doryland, the first Chair of Aeronautical Engineering. One of the first major equipment purchases was 30 drafting tables, which were placed in a 1500 sq. ft Graphics Lab.

Gradually, additional resources and courses were added. Some of the first technical courses offered focused on the wind tunnel, materials science, and electrical engineering. The first group of students graduating in 1984 did a capstone project not unlike what Aero engineers do now: they were tasked with creating a model to test in the wind tunnel.

By Spring of 1984, the course catalog had expanded substantially, with 23 courses offered in the engineering discipline, although there was just one section of each. The highest enrollment was in Drafting and Intro to Aerospace Engineering, closely followed by core courses such as Statics, Dynamics, Fluid Mechanics, and Solid Mechanics. In 2021, the distinct number of courses offered has expanded by about 50 percent, but the enrollment has exploded, peaking at over 800 students in 2019.

The program received its first ABET accreditation in 1986 under the leadership of Chair Dr. Blaine Butler. Under his leadership, the wind tunnel was expanded and the Materials lab got an electron beam microscope. In the summer of 1990, the first experimental aerodynamics course (“Wind Tunnel”) was offered and was quite popular with 34 students enrolling for the summer course taught by Dr. Felton.

Aeronautical Engineering started to pivot to computer-aided design in 1989, and by 1995 the hand drafting course methods were written out of the curriculum. The program would adopt several “state-of-the-art” CAD softwares before settling on CATIA, later adopting SolidWorks as a second option in the last couple years.

The Structures and Materials curriculum was some of the earliest to develop design projects, with the introduction of a variety of labs and machines to assist in hands-on learning. Most of the key developments were instrumented by one or two people who had been hired for their expertise in a certain field; “Everybody was a major player in those days,” says Dr. Richard Felton, the first Dean of the COE. “When you only have like 8 faculty teaching a whole degree program, everybody has to step up.”

Likewise, the Astronautics track was introduced in the late 90s in large part due to the introduction of a few faculty members with background in the space industry. At the time, the only space-related course on the curriculum was Space Mechanics, taught by Dr. Ron Madler, current Dean of the College of Engineering. He would also go on to become the first to offer a space elective.

Knowing his background in space debris research, an interested group of students asked Dr. Madler to offer a space lecture, and he negotiated the course down to a 1-credit-hour section on top of his full plate: “I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll teach you a 1-credit-hour class. No big deal.’” He just asked that the students find a “handful” of peers to take the class with them.

Getting enough student interest in the course was the opposite of a problem: Dr. Madler had to keep moving the course to progressively bigger classrooms, because no matter what room he scheduled the course for, enrollment quickly filled up and students were asking for more seats. This was the first major sign that an Astro program had real potential. 

“Students at an aeronautical university wanted space!” Dr. Madler says. Unable to offer all of the requested space courses himself, Dr. Madler recruited other faculty who had a background in the space industry to support the growth of this concentration. They started offering Spacecraft Prelim and Detail, the capstone courses we still have today, and were floored by the amount of interest. In the early years, there was higher demand for space courses than the faculty could supply.

The college had to put together a curriculum change proposal and go through all the formal avenues to officially bring the Astro track to the campus. “I think it took a year of arguing, but finally, the space side of Aerospace Engineering was approved,” says Dr. Madler. The Astro curriculum has continued to grow as students requested more courses and the faculty had the volume to support it.

As evidenced by the recent overturn of Aerospace Engineering majority enrollment from Aero to Astro, the space track has been a great magnet for new students. “I think it was a huge part of our growth,” reflects Dr. Madler. “Having the focus on space systems was a little unique.”

And the growth has been substantial: Aerospace Engineering is the largest program at Prescott campus, reaching enrollment of over 800 in 2019 from its earliest enrollment of just 42 in 1980. Dr. Felton credits the continued growth of the program to those teaching it. “I can not say enough nice things about the faculty,” he says.

This concludes the Aerospace Engineering history series. We’ve covered the impressive state of the program today, the experience in those very early days, the growth of engineering facilities, and now the evolution of curriculum and introduction of the Astronautics concentration. If you missed any of the past installments, find them at [].

Special thanks to Dr. Ron Madler, Dr. Mark Sensmeier, Eileen Klein, Tracy Doryland, Dr. Richard Felton, Professor John Jenkins, Peg Billson, Sarah Thomas, Dr. Frank Ayers, and Dr. Larry Stephan for their contributions to this series. Data is sourced from the College of Engineering unless otherwise noted.