University students studying engineering, business, or even intellectual property law may have the next big idea to develop cleaner and greener engines, or to reduce noise emissions in transportation sectors. The question is, how can someone take the spark of an idea, translate it into actionable objectives, and develop a proposal that will make a real impact on industry? 

In collaboration with Pratt & Whitney, Virginia Tech has launched an undergraduate research and enrichment program called English-to-Engineering (E2E). Having just celebrated its one-year milestone, the first-of-its-kind program aims to expand undergraduate students’ interest and perspective in aerospace and propulsion, specifically in terms of sustainability.

“Undergraduate engineers are trained to analyze and solve very specific, complex problems,” said Todd Lowe. “With guidance from industry advisors and experts, student participants in the E2E program have an opportunity to take an idea and develop a transdisciplinary, multi-year research plan. This is a pivotal moment for industry, and engineers and researchers are uniquely positioned to help redirect the aerospace propulsion industry and chart an environmentally and economically sustainable course for the future.” 

Housed under the Pratt & Whitney Center of Excellence, the E2E program is spearheaded by Lowe, a professor in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, in collaboration with David Gray, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education. Undergraduate student participants, especially those from underrepresented groups in the propulsion industry, have the opportunity to expand their research skills and technical project execution, as well as develop industry-relevant communication skills. This focus on sustainability in aerospace and propulsion is typically an area reserved for graduate-level students at Virginia Tech.  

The Early Birds

Starting small, the pilot program began in early 2022 with 10 juniors majoring in aerospace and ocean engineering. To apply for the program, student collaborators submitted a formal written proposal for a research project that addressed ways to make air travel more economically and/or environmentally sustainable. 

The pilot group of students, known affectionately as the Early Birds, formed into teams and began exploring research topics such as:

  • Sustainable aviation fuels.
  • Alternative engines cycles, or the use of rechargeable batteries in turbo engines.
  • Hybrid-electric engines vs. open rotor.
  • The effects of smoke and ash ingestion on performance of engines used in wildfire suppression.

Throughout the year, the teams meet with propulsion industry professionals and propulsion research faculty leaders for guidance and feedback on their research. 

To execute their experiments, the students have been granted access to the propulsion research laboratories at Virginia Tech, along with funding to purchase materials, supplies, or services needed to carry out their proposed projects. Furthermore, the program opens doors to internship and employment opportunities at Pratt & Whitney, as well as graduate school funding at Virginia Tech.

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Madelyn Bundy, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, has participated in the program since its inception. Her research project focuses on measuring flow diagnostics in high speed applications. Her proposal topic, which initially had a broad focus, progressed with the guidance of Lowe, Gray, and the Pratt & Whitney mentors, who helped break down the topic and find relevant ties to industry objectives and develop actionable items.

“Undergraduate research is great for learning independent thinking, but generally you’re given tasks to execute,” said Bundy. “What is different about E2E is that you have to come up with those tasks yourself. From the administrative side, you are figuring out what questions to ask, making a plan, and presenting your ideas to other people.” 

The E2E program ultimately changed Bundy’s academic trajectory, as she plans to continue on at Virginia Tech to pursue her Ph.D., specializing in flow diagnostics and optical measurement.  

While Bundy credits the program with boosting her research and technical abilities, the biggest takeaway was honing her presentation skills. “I personally saw huge growth and development in my ability to communicate, and am much more comfortable articulating my ideas in front of the larger group,” she said. 

Widening the circle

As the E2E program enters year two, its student cohort has more than doubled, with 28 undergraduates from across the College of Engineering. Lowe and Gray have developed an infrastructure for onboarding students, sharing knowledge on the research areas, and setting the next group up for success. 

The faculty lined up a number of experiential opportunities for this semester, including a trip to the Pratt & Whitney Engine Center in West Palm Beach; a site visit to Pratt & Whitney’s Columbus, Georgia, facility; and an end-of-year review and presentations to corporate experts and Virginia Tech leadership. 

Through connections made during the program, four students have secured summer internships at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut. The program is now offering optional undergraduate research credit for participation in the program, as well.

International expert David C. Wisler visited Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus in February, presenting a workshop for E2E undergraduate students. Photo by Niki Hazuda for Virginia Tech.
International expert David C. Wisler visited Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus in February, presenting a workshop for E2E undergraduate students. Photo by Niki Hazuda for Virginia Tech.

A spring semester highlight was a weekend workshop with David C. Wisler, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and international expert in turbomachinery aerodynamics technology. Wisler, whose distinguished career at General Electric spanned 40 years, discussed how students can improve their engineering communication skills.

In Wisler’s opinion, students are rarely taught the skills needed to think critically and to speak and write like an expert would. Too often they fall into the practice of memorizing formulas and procedures to pass examinations or solve classroom homework problems. The goal of his workshop is to provide attendees with the insights and tools needed to enhance their reasoning and communication skills and to do it in a manner that encourages their adoption and practice in engineering product-development projects, design boards, and analysis meetings.

As the E2E program continues to grow, Lowe and Gray are seeking undergraduates from majors outside of engineering, such as business, communications, or law. For more information on the program and how to apply, visit the program’s website.

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