Yale University currently has no aerospace engineering major as part of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science. However, there is one undergraduate organization at Yale working to change that.
The Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association is a student organization that “has been tremendously successful over a short period of time,” according to Vincent Wilczynski, deputy dean of SEAS and director of Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation and Design. YUAA Co-President Scott Smith ’18 said the organization, which was first started in the Pierson basement six years ago, builds anything related to space — including telescopes and satellites — and anything that flies, for example, unmanned, high-altitude balloons and rockets. Moving forward, the student organization hopes that the success of YUAA can translate into more institutional change at Yale.
“The YUAA started out with the mission of bringing aerospace to Yale,” Smith said, “which would eventually include an Aerospace Engineering major.”
Wilczynski said that he does not know of any current plans for SEAS to introduce a new aerospace engineering major. Larry Wilen, senior research scientist at the CEID and faculty adviser to YUAA, also said he has not heard of any discussions within the department about creating a separate major.
But students in the organization believe their quick rise in popularity and success in national competitions is reason enough to begin discussions about a new major.
The club is one of Yale’s largest, with a high retention rate and a consistent membership base. In the six years since its inception, YUAA has been able to keep its numbers at around 60 to 70 students. And despite any other commitments the members may have, they are clearly willing to devote much of their time to their projects within the club, Smith said.
“Because of how big YUAA is, it definitely shows that there is a large interest in aerospace at Yale,” Smith said. “Some of the engineering majors are pretty small and Yale finds it necessary to have a major for them.”
In the six years since the founding of the organization, YUAA has accomplished much in the way of tangible outcomes. Most visibly, the group has created a large portfolio of aerospace hardware — all conceptualized and constructed by YUAA members.
“We built Yale’s largest telescope, which is currently at the top of [Yale’s] Leitner Observatory,” former YUAA president Gerardo Carranza ’17 said.
Smith said that one of the group’s ongoing missions is to launch Yale’s first satellite into space within the next two years. Past projects include a high-altitude balloon, a turbojet engine and a metagenomics rocket, the last of which earned YUAA second place in the Payload category of the 2016 Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition.
Wilczynski emphasized the group’s level of enthusiasm and its capacity to form research friendships at Yale.
“In the hypothetical sense, if there were to be an [aerospace engineering major], it definitely will have its origins with the YUAA,” he said.
This speaks to the impact that YUAA has had on the Yale student population as a whole, Wilen said.
But if Yale were to begin offering an aerospace major, that would likely mean significant changes to the culture of the club, perhaps creating levels of student expertise, YUAA Director of Project Management Brian Beitler ’18 said.
Perhaps one of the most significant reasons for the young club’s success, according to Beitler, is that the club capitalizes on students’ interests while still remaining accessible.
“There’s just something about aerospace that captures the imagination in a way that most other fields don’t,” Beitler said. “Furthermore, you truly don’t need any engineering experience coming into the club.”
With the aid of the CEID design staff and the more experienced YUAA members themselves, students are able to join the club with no prior engineering experience, and still have an opportunity to contribute significantly to the club, Beitler said.
Wilen stated that the benefit of this is that there is extremely high emphasis placed on teaching and mentorship in the club.
“The former members are the ones who are teaching [the new members], and the CEID also provides a lot of training to supplement certain areas,” Beitler said.
Clio Byrne-Gudding ’19, YUAA director of public relations, summarized the YUAA culture as “ask and be taught.”
“The teams become sort of like your family. You’re putting in these crazy hours — especially towards the end of this project — and you spend a lot of time with your team. Things always go wrong and there’s always bonding that happens over the harrowing process that is building something new.”
Smith recounted how, as deadlines for the competition approached, many members “pulled all-nighters” at the CEID in order to finish the project. Additionally, he remembered how, as the IREC date neared, many members even changed their summer plans in order to work more on the rocket. All of these examples demonstrate the intense commitment and interest of the group members, Smith said.
While there may be no new aerospace major for the next several years, YUAA members are still excited for the club’s potential and the future of aerospace invention at Yale.
“The sky’s the limit,” Smith said.