Washington University, St. LouisEngineering

Boeing & Washington University: Engineering Synergy


Written by Candace O’Connor, Engineering Momentum Magazine

An optically distorted windshield on an F/A-18 Super Hornet can cause ailments ranging from mild eyestrain to severe nausea in a pilot. Distortions can even impair the pilot’s ability to land the airplane safely on a rolling, pitching U.S. Navy aircraft carrier — a challenging enough feat even on placid waters. So, in 2008, engineers from The Boeing Company, including WUSTL Engineering alumni Matt Thomas and Philip Freeman, teamed up with computer scientists Robert Pless, William Smart, Robert Glaubius, and Michael Dixon from Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science to find a solution: an automated assessment system that transformed windshield production, won a Boeing Special Invention Award, and resulted in a recently issued patent.

That’s just one success story among many in the close, long-standing relationship between Boeing and Washington University in St. Louis. It’s a partnership that dates back some 65 years through a series of chancellors and deans at the University and a changing corporate identity at Boeing, previously McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (1939-1967) and then the McDonnell Douglas Corporation (1967-1997). Today, Boeing employs about 65,000 people across its Defense, Space & Security unit, headquartered in St. Louis.

“Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science has long benefited from the presence of the aerospace industry in St. Louis,” says Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton. “For decades, our leading engineering graduates have been employed by McDonnell Aircraft (MAC), McDonnell Douglas and now Boeing — the world’s top aerospace company. Boeing continues to be an outstanding civic contributor to St. Louis and Washington University, and I consider Boeing as a leader among our most valued corporate partners.”

Over time, this relationship has taken various forms. The company has been generous, with donations to the University totaling more than $27 million to date. Beginning with the late James S. McDonnell, MAC founder, the McDonnell family has also been extraordinarily philanthropic, making gifts that benefit the Danforth Campus as well as the School of Medicine.

Further, Boeing and the University continue to collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. As they did in the windshield project, members of Washington University’s faculty work with Boeing engineers on important research, while Boeing provides scholarships to engineering and business students. Increasing numbers of University students visit Boeing for Job Shadow Day, a new mentoring program, and for internships and undergraduate design teams. Without the other, neither Boeing nor Washington University would be the company or university that it is today.

And there is every indication that this partnership will grow. Washington University has trained or is training a significant portion of Boeing’s workforce. A recent Boeing survey showed that almost 1,900 employees have degrees or certificates from Washington University. Some 1,200 of them are engineering employees, with more new hires each year and more current employees in part-time degree programs.

“We work with some 150 universities around the country, and our relationship with Washington University is one of the best and most vibrant of all,” says Dennis A. Muilenburg, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, who recently joined the University Board of Trustees. “We are building on a strong foundation, and I would like to continue to have a great and growing partnership.”

The History of the Boeing/Washington University Collaboration

In the late 1940s, James S. McDonnell got acquainted with Washington University’s new chancellor, Arthur Holly Compton, winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics. The two struck up a friendship, and McDonnell developed an abiding interest in the University. From 1960-1966 he served as a trustee, chairing the board from 1963-1966.

He also began donating generously to the University through his private foundation, while his company began giving through its corporate foundation. Among their many benefactions were programs on the Danforth and medical campuses, including the McDonnell Center for Space Sciences, as well as numerous buildings. At the time of McDonnell’s death in 1980, gifts from McDonnell and his family, as well as both foundations, totaled more than $28 million.

“My father was always fascinated by all the cutting-edge science going on at Washington University,” says McDonnell’s son, John F. McDonnell, himself a longtime member of the University’s board who also served as its chairman. “He loved talking with the faculty members about what they were doing.”

John McDonnell and his brother, James, have continued the family tradition of philanthropy with gifts including the James M. McKelvey Professorship. “I look at Washington University as an important institution for the St. Louis community, and for the world, in terms of making the world a better and more educated place,” he says.

The Boeing-Washington University Relationship Today

Boeing and the University have recently looked for new ways to strengthen the partnership. The key contact from Boeing to the School of Engineering & Applied Science, Mike Gibbons, is eager to find opportunities for cooperation. And on the Washington University Engineering side, both Ralph S. Quatrano, dean since 2010, and Nick Benassi, associate dean, are equally committed to forging new connections.

“Long before I became dean, I knew of our strong partnership and the rich history of our relationship,” says Quatrano, also the Spencer T. Olin Professor. “It’s certainly not a coincidence that St. Louis is home to a top engineering aerospace company and a top engineering school — this partnership has created opportunities for each to excel and to make a real difference to the world. Now we are working with an outstanding, enthusiastic team at Boeing to capitalize on the existing relationship and grow it to new levels.”

“Synergy” is the word that Gibbons uses to describe the benefit of that relationship. Boeing provides opportunities for students and faculty to interact with aerospace engineers on real-world problems; in turn, the company often attracts talented employees through this process.

“What we want to do is foster the ongoing partnership between the University and Boeing so that it spawns new activities of mutual interest,” says Gibbons, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet program manager, who has a master’s in mechanical engineering and an executive master’s in business administration, both from Washington University, and who serves on the engineering school’s National Council.

Recruiting Women & Minorities

Washington University and Boeing share a special interest in recruiting women and minority students to engineering. Kristin Robertson, then chief engineer for Boeing’s St. Louis site, who spoke to a group of women engineering students at the University last fall, believes strongly in mentoring young women. “It is important for women in industry to share lessons learned and help show the way,” she says. “We can balance work and life, and we bring a diverse perspective.”


For Tyler Gordon, a fifth-year mechanical engineering and materials science student in the BS/MS program, the scholarship support he has received from Boeing has made a giant difference in his life and career.

“Without the support of The Boeing Company, many students — myself included — would have a much more difficult time coming to Washington University,” says Gordon. “It also allows us to focus on our education instead of needing to work full- or part-time jobs throughout the school year.”

In 2005, Boeing began offering scholarships to engineering and business students, including two Washington University/Boeing First Scholarships, awarded to high school seniors who have participated in the FIRST Robotics Competition. This year, 16 engineering students and 17 students at the John M. Olin School of Business have Boeing scholarships.

“By providing financial support through scholarships, The Boeing Company is focused on improving access for and retention of top students who are interested in science, technology, engineering and math,” says Matt Daniels, regional manager of university relations for Boeing. “We build upon these investments with our Boeing Scholarship recipients by providing mentoring, job shadowing, and other experiential learning opportunities.”

Job Shadow Day, Internships, Mentoring & Design

Two years ago, Boeing inaugurated a new program, Boeing-St. Louis Engineering Job Shadow Day, a one-day experience aimed at giving some 50 engineering students a preview of work life at Boeing. Last October, F/A-18 tooling design engineer Nirvana Deck hosted two of them, showing them the tools and software she uses and describing her work on an integrated product team. In the afternoon, they toured the F/A-18 production line, visited the flight simulation center and met senior executives.

“Overall, the production tour was the highlight for them, but getting to fly in the simulators was tough to beat. They were also impressed that we work closely with other teams, such as manufacturing and design, in such a collaborative environment,” she says.

Interested students may wish to move on to a Boeing internship, as Tyler Gordon did in summer 2010. At Boeing’s Seattle facility, he did structural dynamics, vibration analysis and project management as part of an engineering team working on the F-22 program.

Other students may participate in a job mentoring program, inaugurated last September, which is off to a promising start. Ten University students were matched with 10 younger Boeing engineers and business professionals in a yearlong effort, led by Stuart Voboril, experimentation manager, Boeing’s Virtual Warfare Center, to provide guidance for students as they prepare for their professional careers.

Also launched last fall was a design collaboration, proposed by Kristin Robertson. Her office gathered ideas from Boeing teams and then chose one: creating a loop closure pneumatic simulation for performing engine control testing on the F-15 jet fighter. Selected students worked side by side with Boeing mentors on the project, which they completed successfully during the 2010 fall semester, and the students’ work is being integrated into Boeing’s Vehicle Integration Test Lab.

“I think this collaboration adds tremendous value to us from an innovation perspective, as students look at a project with different ideas,” says Robertson. “It also gives students real-life experience in the kind of problems that a Boeing engineer has to work through.”

Boeing wants to expose younger students to engineering concepts, too. So the company has developed a K-12 outreach that includes the 3-year-old Boeing Engineering Challenge (BEC). This year, 150 St. Louis-area high school students are taking part: building model gliders with mentoring from Boeing engineers and design review from University faculty. At the end of this five-month process, they will take part in a flight competition, held at Washington University.

Research Collaborations

Much is happening in the research partnership. Last June, both sides signed a Proprietary Information Agreement that will open the door to new areas of collaboration, especially in materials and energy. As the world’s largest manufacturer of solar cells, Boeing is also interested in CO2 reduction and biofuels.

K.K. Sankaran, senior technical fellow in Boeing Research and Technology, is the contact from Boeing for research efforts at the University.

“Washington University is focusing on some key areas that are of interest to us as well in materials, chemical engineering, and energy and biomedical engineering,” says Sankaran, who has taught graduate-level engineers at the University as an adjunct faculty member.

Several new joint research projects are currently being developed.

Altogether, says Gibbons, these various collaborations between Boeing and the University make both institutions stronger. “The work we do together heightens both of our performances,” he says. “We feel as though we definitely perform better as a team than we do separately.” And beyond the institutions, says Benassi, the partnership is creating a safer, better world. “The advanced technological discoveries and training that come as a result of our partnership are leading to innovative, new knowledge with global impact,” he says. “No matter if it’s creating airborne systems that can fly farther and longer in an environmentally responsible way, developing new and more efficient ways to integrate defense systems and networks that make us safer, or preparing current and future Boeing employees for global and leadership roles, our joint work is changing the world."


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Photo courtesy of Boeing. View more photos in Engineering Momentum Magazine.

Washington University in St. Louis School of Engineering & Applied Science, Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science

Urbauer Hall, CB 1185, 1 Brookings Drive, Saint Louis, MO, USA 63130
Phone: (314) 935-6047, Fax: (314) 935-4014

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