Although she went on to a successful career at NASA after earning her MS ASE at UT in 1987, Lisa Guerra couldn’t quite stay away from Austin. For the past five years, she has worked within the Cockrell School on a Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) agreement first to develop a systems engineering curriculum in the Aerospace Engineering department and then, over the past year, to infuse the UTeach Engineering program with those same elements of systems engineering.
“It’s teaching the skills and habits of mind that apply to anything you’re going to do,” Guerra said about systems engineering. “It gives students a sense of real aspects within the industry.”
Guerra is certainly familiar with the industry. As the former director of the Integration Office of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA, her catchall role involved looking at the strategies for human exploration beyond the space station, including everything from strategic planning to international partnerships.
It’s an ideal position for someone with a BS in aerospace and a BA in English from Notre Dame. Guerra said her attraction to aerospace arose from a combination of her childhood imagination and a formative high school experience.
“I think anyone from my generation who grew up watching the Apollo program and the moon landings was very inspired by that as a child,” she said. But the clincher occurred during a Notre Dame engineering summer camp before her senior year of high school. She won a grant that led to involvement with the Giotto mission, building an instrument that flew on a European spacecraft to Halley’s comet. She was hooked.
While her years at UT in graduate school were a blur of research and study, she does recall being the only woman in her class, an inequity she hoped would no longer exist when she returned.
“It hasn’t changed much,” she said. “If you roam the fourth floor, you’re still not going to see many women.”
But noticing the dearth of women choosing engineering didn’t discourage Guerra; rather it inspired her to serve as a faculty sponsor for WIALD, the Women in Aerospace Leadership and Development club started last year.
All the while, she focused on developing the UT pilot curriculum in systems engineering that would serve as a model for universities across the U.S. Guerra observed the senior capstone design course to assess how students were going about the design process and what they may be lacking.
Meanwhile, she drew from her involvement in the systems engineering handbook NASA was creating and the leadership development program for new systems engineers being produced at Johnson Space Center.
“This course was structured to enable a better execution of the capstone design course,” she said. “It was a lot to expect of students to knit it all together in one semester, so they learn these concepts before they have to execute them in their design projects.”
Knitting it all together is what systems engineering is all about.
“It’s this more holistic view of the system, looking at it from a bigger-picture perspective,” she said. Students learn about subsystems like propulsion, orbital mechanics, and structures throughout their degree plan, but there had not been a course that integrated that knowledge together and taught the technical management aspects of aerospace engineering.
“Systems engineering is trying to help them see that you’re taking everything into account,” she said.
Guerra designed the course as a series of modules, including System Life Cycle, System Architecture and Risk Analysis, so that other universities could integrate individual modules into existing courses if they were unable to create a whole new undergraduate course as UT did.
After Guerra taught the first undergraduate course in the spring of 2008, she used student feedback to improve it before making it available online to other universities in fall of 2009.
Dr. Wallace Fowler, who teaches a capstone design course, said the introduction of Guerra’s systems engineering course has made a tremendous difference in the quality of students’ designs.
“It’s just been a quantum leap in the quality of the designs because the students know the process they’re going to have to go through and what words to associate with things,” he said. “Students are more realistic and realize what the real-world stakes are, looking at cost and some of the political realities of things as well as the engineering side of things.”
The strength of Guerra’s curriculum, aside from existing as a series of interchangeable modules, is the qualitative aspect that requires students to consider the feasibility and tradeoffs in their designs.
“It lets them take a step back and see why they’re learning this and keeps companies from [later] having to do as much on-the-job training,” she said. “It’s the bigger thinking of putting the puzzle together.” She said the approach and techniques taught can apply to large NASA programs or smaller missions that will likely be replacing programs like Constellation.
In fact, a student in her pilot class, Michael “Dax” Garner, became her TA and then went on to write his Master’s Thesis on applying systems engineering principles to student-led projects, such as those in the UAV and the Texas Spacecraft Lab (TSL).
“I can’t even imagine being here without having learned and worked systems engineering,” Garner wrote in an email to Guerra about his job at Odyssey Space Research in Houston. “Everyone is treating me as if I understand all the systems concepts, and I believe I owe the thanks to you.”
Emails like these – and she has received plenty – were an unexpected bonus for Guerra, who said the best part of teaching at UT has been influencing the way students think about their future careers in the aerospace industry.
“It’s been really fun to watch their trajectory, and that was the part I was totally not expecting,” she said. “You do an assignment, and you think of the nuts and bolts of it, not who you’re affecting and whose future you’ll touch.”
For more information, visit Lisa Guerra’s Space Systems Engineering website.