Partnership between Rockwell Collins and University of Iowa College of Engineering spans more than 40 years
A 2014 internship with Rockwell Collins was a game changer for University of Iowa student Bridget Johnson. The computer engineering major was writing flight software for an experimental drone and knew then that she had found her passion. She’s continued to pursue her passion back on campus, too. Last semester, Johnson was a graduate research assistant at the UI’s Operator Performance Laboratory (OPL) at the Iowa City airport, where she helped build a tool that integrates precision agriculture with flight plans.
“Rockwell Collins was the reason I got interested in avionics,” says Johnson. “Working alongside professional engineers on the octa quadcopter drone was the most satisfying moment of my career so far.”
The unique partnership between the University of Iowa College of Engineering and Rockwell Collins—an aerospace and defense engineering company headquartered in Cedar Rapids—spans more than 40 years and allows students like Johnson to work with faculty and professional engineers on relevant and challenging projects, using state-of-the-art technology. This creative dynamic, along with the company’s longtime philanthropic support for scholarships and research, has helped the college continue to grow.
Says Alec B. Scranton, dean of the UI College of Engineering, “Our core values are perfectly aligned with those at Rockwell Collins.”
UI alumnus Kelly Ortberg (1982 B.S.M.E.), the chairman, president, and CEO of Rockwell Collins, is determined to keep the partnership strong. The Dubuque native says he grew up wanting to be a Hawkeye before wanting to be an engineer. But once he chose the UI’s engineering program, there was no going back.
“The beauty of an engineering major is that it opens up the door to anything you want to do,” he says. “There isn’t one professional field that doesn’t have some aspect of technology. Engineering is scalable. You can go from one market to another.”
Ortberg, who met his wife, Valerie (1982 B.A.), at Iowa, maintains firm ties with his alma mater and sits on the UI’s Engineering Advisory Board.
“I can help the UI think about what we need for future generations of engineers,” he says. At Rockwell Collins, the future is now. “We’re seeing that these students want to be challenged immediately,” he says. “Students today want to see the world, to work across cultures. Our teams are doing just that—working around the globe, using collaborative tools.”
Operator Performance Laboratory founder and director Tom “Mach” Schnell on the unique partnership between Rockwell Collins and the university.
Students have clearly taken notice of the opportunities that await them at Iowa. In the last six years, total enrollment at the UI College of Engineering has grown by 54 percent. Since 2010, the number of undergraduate women in engineering has climbed by 80 percent. Rockwell Collins also is a leading destination for graduates: In the last five years, 100 UI engineering students have received full-time internships, and the firm has hired 72 UI engineering graduates.
Perhaps nowhere is the physical impact of Rockwell Collins more visually apparent than at the Iowa City airport, where UI associate professor and chief pilot Tom “Mach” Schnell presides over a fleet of two L-29 Delfin jet aircraft and an MI-2 twin turbine helicopter, among other research aircraft and simulators—some outfitted with state-of-the-art Rockwell Collins avionics.
Schnell, who is the OPL founder and director, and his team of researchers recently were recognized by the Eglin Air Force Base commander for “saving the day.” Research co-developed by Rockwell Collins and the UI’s OPL led Schnell to fly one of the jets down to the Florida base on a day’s notice for test flights, and OPL was lauded for “this national-level effort.”
Schnell speaks highly of CEO Kelly Ortberg. “He’s a ‘real’ engineer—the real deal.” And Schnell is grateful for the support Rockwell Collins provides to his lab. “This lab would not exist without Rockwell Collins,” he says. “And I would not be here.”
Dean Scranton also is grateful: “We are delighted to have one of the leading tech companies in the world, and one of the greatest employers in the region, engage with us in so many important ways.”
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