Why three aerospace engineering majors also minored in computer science

11/30/2022

Debra Levey Larson

Majoring in aerospace engineering is academically rigorous. Adding to the mix a minor in computer science brings the likelihood of a heavy STEM course load every semester and probably fewer slots to take a lightweight elective, but for students who are passionate about computation, it’s the perfect combination. 

Bella Watters
Bella Watters

AE senior Bella Watters took some computer science classes in high school and liked them, so when she began at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign she wanted to take more. 

“I came into the AE program at Illinois expecting to be drawn to avionics applications,” Watters said. “I immediately got involved with the avionics sub team of the Illinois Space Society's rocketry team. I also did a software engineering co-op at Collins Aerospace my sophomore year.”

But, between the first few computer science classes and the co-op, Watters changed her mind.

“For the past two years I've been pursuing structural design,”’ she said. “Even though I'm no longer working on flight software, there are heavy CS applications in structural design. For example, complex finite element analysis would not be possible without computational software and tools. Coding skills are becoming increasingly crucial in the core AE classes to enable computation and data processing, and an elevated understanding of CS topics is very beneficial.”

Watters said even though some of the computer science classes aren't directly related to her plans to work on launch vehicle structural design, she believes they have given her a more comprehensive understanding of large-scale aerospace systems.

“Honestly, the most challenging part about the minor can be registering for classes and competing for seats,” she joked.

David Robbins
David Robbins

When David Robbins began at Illinois, he planned to major in aerospace and minor in math, but after his first math class, it became clear that math was not fun for him.

“I happened to be in CS 101 at the same time and fell in love with it,” Robbins said. “The combo does make a lot of sense though. Pretty much every higher-level AE class has you doing something in code, and my CS minor has made those classes a lot easier for me. Plus, AE is a very well-rounded major. By coupling aerospace with computer science you can become a completely full-stack engineer from hardware to software.”

He said it can be difficult to finish both a CS minor and an AE major in four years.

“I didn't come into college with as many credits as a lot of my peers and have had to take a few semesters with 18 technical credit hours to finish in eight semesters,” Robbins said. “There have been a lot of late nights in the aero computer lab where I have been stuck on CS assignments, but I have a compressible flow exam the next day.”

Robbins graduates in December and has already signed a full-time offer with Collins Aerospace as a software engineer, “working on something like Google Maps for aircraft.” He said he’d like to work in industry for a few years, then consider getting a Ph.D. in computer science.

“The software industry is booming right now, so being a CS minor with an AE background was one of the main reasons I got my first internship at Collins Aerospace,” Robbins said. ‘It has also helped me understand myself. For me, writing good code comes in moments of flow, and sometimes that flow just isn't there. The same is true for homework problems.  Writing so much code has forced me to recognize when I am in the flow, and when I need to take a break and take a walk down Green Street.”

Audrey Godsell
Audrey Godsell

When Audrey Godsell came to Illinois four years ago, she knew a few aerospace juniors and seniors who were minoring in computer science. They told her it gave them job opportunities they might not have had otherwise.

“I had some background in coding and knew I enjoyed it, so I decided to pursue the minor,” Godsell said. Although she doesn’t have a concrete career goal yet, she said there is a strong chance it will include coding. “I had a co-op writing software for helicopters and I really enjoyed that experience. I wouldn't mind writing software full time, especially in an aerospace-related field.”

Godsell said many of her aerospace courses incorporate coding in some form. In her introductory theoretical and applied mathematics courses, she used MATLAB on nearly every homework assignment. She said learning Python has been extremely beneficial and comes in handy in more places than she expected.

“I've used Python to plot airfoils and orbit trajectories and to implement numerical methods,” Godsell said. “The aerospace core control systems courses utilize quite a bit of Python as well—enough that most students will learn at least the basics of coding, and likely how to solve differential equations in code, too.”

Godsell admitted C++ was the most challenging computer science course she took, but that “the experience of knowing how to get started with learning new coding languages is something I can repeat over and over with new languages.”

Watch the video to hear Watters, Robbins, and Godsell describe their experiences.