Best of Both Worlds: Aerospace Engineering and Business Merge in New Courses

Visiting lecturer Dean Roberts, a 30-year veteran at Rolls-Royce, teaches business and engineering students in his global manufacturing course.
February 13, 2017

One student uses the collaborative courses to better understand the financial viability of the supersonic aircraft he dreams of engineering. Another plans to apply her new knowledge of engineering and manufacturing to conducting stock research when she joins a New York City equity firm after graduation.

The students are enrolled in two courses pairing students in the University of Virginia’s mechanical and aerospace engineering master’s program with faculty and students in the McIntire School of Commerce. One course, “Manufacturing in the Global Economy,” taught by visiting lecturer and Rolls-Royce executive Dean Roberts, helps students understand how supply chains and government regulations affect the aerospace or automotive industries. The second, “Managing Sustainable Development,” taught by Associate Professor of Commerce Brad Brown, explores how engineering and technology advances could impact developing nations or address global issues like climate change. 

“These courses will help students in the Commerce School better understand mechanical and aerospace engineering, and help engineering students better understand how to deal with manufacturing lines, supply chains and other business concepts,” Associate Chair of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Chris Li said.

“This new partnership is a great example of cross-school collaboration between the schools of Commerce and Engineering to provide University of Virginia students a unique academic experience with renowned professors,” said Eric Loth, who chairs the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “This combination provides our students with world-class knowledge and expertise that will produce the next generation of national leaders and keep UVA at the forefront of academic excellence.”

The courses, launched in January, include a mixture of graduate engineering students and undergraduate and graduate business students. According to Roberts, the variety of students’ backgrounds makes for a lively classroom.

“It is really exciting, because in one classroom you have people that are going to go into investment banking, consulting or finance, mixing with those who will be designing aircraft or developing new materials,” Roberts said. “It is a really eclectic bunch of individuals and makes for a profound learning experience.”

Roberts leads efforts to research, analyze and sell new initiatives at Rolls-Royce, which has a longstanding partnership with UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science. He recently published a book based on the course content, “Entering the Civil Aircraft Industry: Business Realities at the Technological Frontier.”

His course uses industries like aerospace manufacturing to study how management practices can encourage innovation and how government intervention can affect growth. For example, in one week students examined how the Northern Atlantic Free Trade Agreement impacted the aerospace industry in Mexico before talking about the concept of comparative advantage as a basis for free trade.

“The course is very current, taking on live issues that are very topical right now,” he said. “At the same time, it gives students a very broad grounding in manufacturing in a global sense.”

Brown’s course, which focuses on sustainable development, also has a global mindset. He encourages students to examine how technology and business can help people around the world lift themselves out of poverty or help alleviate global concerns like climate change.

“The engineering students bring lots of ideas, and the course helps them think about how their ideas could be applied in countries that do not have robust infrastructure or resources,” Brown said.

Fourth-year commerce student Sarah McCann, a student in Roberts’ course, said that talking with her engineering classmates has helped her better understand the technical realities of manufacturing a product.

“As business students we are used to talking about high-level strategy, which is certainly important,” McCann said. “Hearing from engineers helps to understand the technical aspects of making these products and grounds us in what is really happening in the industry.”

McCann believes the insights she has gained from her classmates – and from a professor with more than 30 years of experience in the industry – will be very helpful when she starts her job researching stocks at an equity firm in New York City this summer.

She is not alone in viewing the course as an excellent asset to future employers. Alejandro Nava Moncada, an engineering graduate student enrolled in Brown’s course, said the course has helped him learn more about nonprofits and other organizations working to alleviate poverty in developing nations while teaching him the managerial skills he hopes to apply in his career.

“The class really pushes me to go beyond the engineering perspective and understand the dynamics of the business world,” said Moncada, who also earned his undergraduate engineering degree from UVA in 2016. “My goal is to become a project manager overseeing bigger and bigger projects over time, which is why I am glad to get more business classes.”

Fellow engineering student Mohan Jayathirtha, enrolled in the global manufacturing course, wants to be ready for challenges facing engineers in the automotive industry.

“I am very passionate about the automotive industry and I see it taking a turn in the coming years, as electric or even self-driving cars become more common,” said Jayathirtha, who worked as a product engineer for an automotive company in India before coming to UVA.

“If I focus only on the technical aspects of my job, I don’t feel as completely connected to the automotive industry as I could be if I understood the business side,” he said. “This class gives me that connection with how the industry works and the far-reaching impact it has on the global economy.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications