It’s time for another guest post!
I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was a sudden spike of traffic on this site. Well here is the guy who was probably responsible for it. Seems he liked the site, so he told a few friends, who told a few friends, who told . . . . . .
I quickly found myself chatting online with a very switched-on graduate student named Ilhan Akcay. We agreed that he should write a post.
This will obviously be of interest mainly to those approaching or in their university years, and less to those who are post- university. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for his writing this post. Now that I’m in the second half of my ball game, my memories are bound to be a little hazy, and times and technology have changed a lot.
Here is Ilhan’s take on what it’s like to actually do a course of study in aerospace engineering.
Getting Ready for Aerospace Engineering
Aerospace engineering is an exciting and challenging field. You get to work with space ships and aircraft like the F-16 … it can’t get any cooler than that! But it is not a field for everyone and getting through engineering school can be hard. The workload is high and a lot of students quit not because it is too hard, but because they were not mentally prepared for it.
In Germany, where I went to college, every freshman experiences the “Freshman Shock”. Most freshmen coming to engineering school graduated from high school at the top of their classes. They are used to being unchallenged and breezing through coursework. But once they start college they realize it is a totally different ball game. Suddenly everybody is smart and willing to work hard. Additionally, the courseload is high, students have to spend long hours in lectures and at home to understand all the subjects. A feeling of being overwhelmed is very common. Therefore “Freshman Shock”.
When I started college I was hit pretty hard by Freshman Shock. It led to many sleepless nights, desperate study sessions and to an unhealthy general stress level during my first two years.
This post is intended for the high school sophmore or junior who is planning to study aerospace engineering. It will show you how to get ready for engineering school and how to stay calm.
Welcome to Engineering School
If you are in a serious engineering program you will be faced with a lot of math, no matter what. The math will not be overwhelming and it will not blow your mind like some fields of theoretical mathematics, but there will be a lot of it.
Calculus and algebra are the languages of engineering. The simple rule is: if you can’t express a problem in mathematical terms you usually cannot solve it, period. So with the exception of certain niche fields (like design, which still needs more math than you would think) math is at the center of problem solving in engineering.
Be prepared. Especially the first few semesters will have you solving all kinds of different math problems so you can familiarize yourself and get real cozy with Mr.Calculus and Mr.Algebra! Of course the curriculum will include physics and more specialized subjects, however they will always be expressed in mathematical terms. Gone are the days when students could talk about physical phenomena in general without getting math-dirty!
Now that you know that the first few years in any engineering program will be very math heavy what would be the best way to prepare yourself? Exactly, focusing on math and physics classes.
Most high schools offer a wide variety of math classes that you can choose from. An optimal preparation for aerospace engineering would be if you took the hardest math classes that your high school has to offer in your senior year, that way it is still fresh in your mind when you start with college.
You can pepper your courseload with physics classes here and there. However, the physics needed for aerospace engineering is very specialized and seldom taught in high schools. Therefore math classes should always take precedence when in doubt!
We have talked about how to prepare for engineering, but how about specific aerospace knowledge?
There are several very good books on aerospace engineering that are fairly enjoyable to read and packed with knowledge. I used to read those books on my 45 minute train ride to college every day and those were some of the best 45 minutes I have spend on a daily basis! Making a habit of reading aerospace and science books on a regular basis will extremely expand your knowledge and give you an edge over all the other college freshmen who did not prepare for aerospace engineering as well as you did!
Two of my all time favorite aerospace engineering books are these:
Introduction to Flight, by John Anderson: This is hands down THE best introduction to aerospace engineering. No overwhelming staccatos of formulas that look like numbers gone wild, but a lot of text explaining every phenomenon and formula.
(Editor note: I ditto this! Introduction to Flight was a great inspiration to me when I was considering switching careers to aerospace. It has some math, but not too much to intimidate a newbie. And the prose is well written and includes some historical anecdotes about the early aerospace pioneers.)
Modern Combat Aircraft Design, by Klaus Hunecke: Hunecke artfully explains the different components of combat aircraft, why combat aircraft look the way they look and gives a general outlook on design aspects. Because of the emphasis on design aspects this book is not only interesting in regards to combat aircraft, but to aircraft in general. After reading this book you will be able to look at an aircraft and exactly know what its mission is and why it was build the way it was build.
Don’t Forget the Fun
It is very easy to get overwhelmed with all the math and physics and aerospace. One important thing to remember is this: Never forget to have fun!
(Editor note: This is good advice for everyone, everywhere, in any career. You would think it’s just common sense. But life and work has a strange way of snuffing out the fun when you’re not looking. It’s happened to me. Indeed, it’s why I made a mid-life career switch to aerospace, and why I’m now switching again.)
There is plenty of time to learn everything in college, so do not stay away from classes that you would like to take but feel like you can’t because they are not math or physics related! If you are into music, take music classes. If you love history, don’t forget the history classes. Even if you are not that much into the social sciences, you should consider taking a few. Social sciences are important in the formation of a well educated person.
I hope this article will help you in your quest to become an aerospace engineer. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section!
Ilhan Akcay is an aerospace engineer and graduate student at the Technical University of Munich. He specializes in aircraft design, aerodynamics and aircraft control.