Imprimir Republish

Engineering education

ITA’s flight

New dean takes over with the task of doubling seats at renowned engineering school

Eduardo CesarCarlos Américo Pacheco: back at ITA, from where he graduated in 1979Eduardo Cesar

The new dean of the Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA) is the 54 year-old engineer and economist Carlos Américo Pacheco, previously a professor on the Economics faculty at Campinas State University (Unicamp). He was appointed on September 21 by the Minister of Defense, Celso Amorim, and is taking charge of one of Brazil’s most highly regarded engineering colleges. Well-known for the difficulty of its entrance exam, ITA has been responsible for the shaping of generations of professionals who have built the aerospace and defense industry in the São José dos Campos region and who have also played key roles in the electronics industry and in the academic world.

One of Pacheco’s main tasks will be to coordinate the doubling of the institute’s undergraduate courses, which currently accept 120 students a year and have 120 professors. Another task will be to increase the quality of the graduate courses, so that they are awarded the maximum score under the Brazilian government’s so-called CAPES evaluation system. ITA’s expansion, explains Pacheco, is an attempt to make the institute more important in terms of national development and to update the principles that have guided it since its foundation, particularly the training of engineers with the capacity to help Brazil to master technologies in strategic sectors.

These targets are part of ITA’s Institutional Development Plan that was approved by Brazil’s Aeronautics Command and outlined during the period when ITA was managed by Pacheco’s predecessor, Brigadier Reginaldo dos Santos, who has been appointed to run Alcântara Cyclone Space, the partnership between Brazil and the Ukraine to utilize the Alcântara satellite launch base in Maranhão. “The fact that ITA is undergoing this interesting period was definitely a factor in my decision to apply for the position of dean,” states Pacheco, who was up against seven other applicants and whose name was at the top of the three-name list forwarded by the search commission to the Ministry of Defense.

Pacheco will be the nineteenth dean in the line that began with Richard Harbert Smith, a researcher from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who was hired to be the first director of ITA, which was established in 1950. Having graduated with a degree in electronic engineering from ITA in 1979, the new dean is one of those professionals who has been shaped by the institute and then went to the academic world. Pacheco has a master’s degree and a PhD in economics from Unicamp and a post-doctorate from Columbia University in the United States. With experience in urban-regional economics and industrial and technological economics, he was executive secretary at the Ministry of Science and Technology between 1999 and 2002 and chairman of the board of directors of the Ministry’s Research and Projects Financing Institution.

The idea of doubling the number of places offered by ITA has been brewing for some time. The institute increased the range of courses offered: in addition to the course in aeronautical, electronic, mechanical and civil engineering that were established between 1950 and 1970, a computer engineering course was created in 1989, and an aerospace engineering course in 2010. But the number of places and  professors remained unchanged. The need to form a larger contingent of engineers gave a sense of urgency to the expansion plans: according to figures from 2007, a mere 5% of university graduates are engineers, vs. 6.1% in the United States and 25% in South Korea. Between 2003 and 2008, the employment rate in the engineering area grew by 8.3% a year vs. an average increase of 2.6% in the total level of employment.

One strong argument in favor of ITA’s expansion came from an analysis of the performance of the candidates who sat the institute’s entrance examination. It was concluded that at least 400 candidates performed very well and could have been approved ITA, but there is only room for 120. The number of applicants who enrolled to take ITA’s most recent entrance examination came out to a total of 9 thousand, up from 7,500 the previous time. This increase was probably the result of an upturn in the market for engineers. “We are confident that it is possible to expand with quality. It’s a waste not to take advantage of these talents. The cost of ITA’s expansion is low by comparison with the return, which is impressive,” states the new dean.

He is referring to the profile of the professionals who graduate from ITA. “ITA’s students learn values such as leadership, responsibility and respect for merit. This set of values is known as Conscious Discipline, which for example, enables the professors to leave the classroom during an exam,” he explains. The institution’s former dean, Brigadier Reginaldo dos Santos, recalls that ITA’s students have made contributions to the development of various areas of technology. “The quality of our engineers is recognized both in Brazil and internationally,” he declared at the graduation ceremony of the engineering class of 2010, which was held in January.

039-041_Pacheco_189The drop-out rate among ITA students is roughly 8% throughout the course –one of the country’a lowest. According to the Ministry of Education’s figures for 2007, in the case of Federal Universities, on average 27% of the students drop out before the end of the course. The logistics of the expansion is no simple matter, given that ITA students also receive lodging and meals. The hiring of new professors will be one of the trickier points. “We will have to shape new professionals and this will include sending them abroad, and we will also have to bring foreign researchers to Brazil. The job market in Brazil is very buoyant and the best talent is already employed. But the crisis in Europe and the United States may help us to attract high quality professionals,” explains Pacheco.

The expansion of the faculty will also have an impact on the post-graduate area. The challenge here is not just to grow, but more importantly to achieve the high level of quality that has always characterized ITA’s undergraduate courses. According to figures from ITA’s Institutional Development Plan, the evaluation provided by CAPES ( the Brazilian government organization that assesses graduate courses, among other duties) of ITA’s graduate courses have awarded a score of 4 to the electronic engineering and computing, aeronautical infrastructure and physics engineering courses, and of 6 to the aeronautical and mechanical engineering courses. The target is to achieve the maximum score of 7. The professional master’s degree course in aeronautical and mechanical engineering received a score of 5, which is the maximum given for this kind of course. At present, ITA has more than one thousand graduate students, of whom one third are doing master’s degree courses, one third, professional master’s degree courses and the last third, doctorates.

Pacheco emphasizes that ITA has never ceased to be an extremely important school. “But Brazil was smaller in the 1950s and the impact of an elite school with a hundred engineers graduating a year was more significant back then. Other good engineering schools have been established and other institutions now offer even aerospace engineering courses,” he states. The current challenges are more complex. “When ITA was first founded, the country had the very beginnings of an aerospace industry, which was state owned. Now Brazil has a strong, dynamic industry. We have the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer, Embraer, which has suppliers, such as General Electric, a lot bigger than Embraer itself,” he explains.

The aim of ITA’s expansion is to produce professionals that can help the aerospace and defense sectors to face the future. “The market is going to change with competition from Chinese companies as well as from firms in other emerging economies, and we need to create an environment of support for innovations in the aeronautics, space and defense sectors,” he says, referring to the establishment in the São José dos Campos region of a conglomerate of companies and laboratories along the lines of those found in Toulouse, in France, or in Hamburg, in Germany. ITA’s participation in this type of effort is nothing new, he notes.

When the institute was established, it was part of a set of institutions conceived for the purpose of creating the aeronautics industry, such as the Research and Development Institute (Instituto de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento) and Industrial Development Institute (Instituto de Fomento Industrial), within the Aerospace Technical Center (Centro Técnico Aeroespacial), which is now called the CTA. “The recent establishment of the São José dos Campos Technology Park (Parque Tecnológico de São José dos Campos) has also helped to create an environment that complements the CTA,” he declares. Collaboration between universities and companies will become increasingly common, he explains, as this model has become widely accepted throughout Brazil over the last 20 years. “Brazil is mature enough to take big bets, but to do this you need institutions and companies that help to act as catalysts for this process, and that help remove obstacles in terms of the selection at our schools,” he notes.

The defense industry is also likely to become more important. “We have always had a significant, advanced defense industry, which can be seen from examples such as Avibrás and Engesa. Since Brazil’s defense strategy requires that new technologies be mastered and since the government is proposing to place orders, the private sector has begun to make preparations,” states Pacheco, referring to the setting up of two companies, Embraer Defesa and Odebrecht Defesa, a subsidiary of the infrastructure company created following the acquisition of Mectron, a well-established firm in São José dos Campos. “These companies have enormous financial and management capacity and this gives a major boost to the private sector,” he adds.

The development prospects also arouse interest in other sectors. “Research into advanced materials, such as carbon fiber, may be even more important for the petroleum sector than for the aerospace sector. The field of unmanned aviation, which will require investments as well as technological mastery, is going to need trained people. The implications for the automotive and telecommunications industries will also be important,” declares Pacheco, recalling that in the 1970s ITA was already supplying professionals to the state owned telecommunications company Telebras and its research division, CPqD.