Fund supports aerospace engineering students' hands-on learning


By Gabrielle Stewart

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Aerospace engineering students across the country can explore a myriad of challenges in their courses, from designing their own drone to developing technology that could be installed on the moon. At Penn State, students can take these engineering projects one step further.

The Excellence Fund for Special Student Projects in the Department of Aerospace Engineering helps enable students to test that moon hardware in a laboratory setting mimicking Earth’s lunar satellite, for example, or turn that drone design into a functional vehicle.

“Learning by doing is essential to engineering education,” said Amy Pritchett, professor and head of aerospace engineering in Penn State’s College of Engineering. “By giving students opportunities to direct design processes, the Excellence Fund is supporting their technical and problem-solving skills — and enthusiasm for applying those skills.”

The Excellence Fund was created by an anonymous donor to enhance the educational experience of aerospace engineering students through the support of special projects and associated expenses. This support can cover a number of educational needs, including experiential learning activities, registration costs for competitions, laboratory materials for special projects and more.

Eric Johnson, professor of aerospace engineering, said the fund provided a new opportunity for his students.

“These gift funds allowed us to teach — for the first time — a two-semester sequence on the design of autonomous aerospace systems,” Johnson said.

Divided into teams, the students were given a budget to purchase supplies and parts, such as sensors, motors, propellers and computers. Each team designed and built a unique aircraft and developed the necessary software for the aircraft’s autonomous flying mission — locating a visual landing pad and landing on it with no input from the students.

“This project allowed students to apply design principles to the hands-on experience of building and testing their creations, and it would not have been possible without the Excellence Fund,” Johnson said. “The skills they learned are ones they will apply over and over throughout their careers.”

This gift advances “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit


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