Edward Crawley: A career of education, service, and exploration

The MIT professor reflects on five decades of impactful work in aerospace engineering and education, at the Institute and beyond.

Arriving as an undergraduate in the 1970s, working through his master’s and doctoral degrees, and then becoming tenured faculty member, Professor Edward Crawley has spent his entire career at MIT.

Crawley ’76, MS ’78, ScD ’81, Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and head of the Systems Architecture group, joined the MIT faculty in 1980. His research focuses on the architecture, design, and decision support for complex technical systems. Over the summer, Crawley officially retired from his faculty position, after some 43 years as a professor.

During his time at MIT, Crawley not only published prolifically — with some 219 papers to his name — and taught and mentored countless students and colleagues. He also had a career of tremendous leadership and service: as department head of AeroAstro, as a member of advisory committees at NASA and the White House, as the founder of numerous companies, and as the head of several new MIT programs. Crawley also holds the NASA Public Service Medal, is a fellow of the AIAA and the Royal Aeronautical Society (U.K.) — and a member of five more science and engineering academies in the United States, China, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom — and is an active pilot.

“Ed Crawley reinvented our department, reinvented engineering education, and reinvented himself by leading completely different fields at different points in his career. He is one of few people in history who has changed how we view aerospace engineering and its role in the world,” says Professor Steven Barrett, interim department head of AeroAstro.

A focus on education
Crawley served as department head of AeroAstro from 1996 to 2003. The department’s current thematic research groupings of three sectors — computing, air, and space — grew largely from Crawley’s hiring and strategic plan. His love of teaching, and appreciation for the Institute’s focus on teaching, also informed his efforts as department head.

“I just love teaching. When I’d get up in the morning my wife could always tell the days I was teaching because I was so much more excited,” says Crawley. “We really value teaching as an important activity of the community. You see so much dedication to really improving and valuing education at MIT.” 

While serving as department head, Crawley helped to start the CDIO Initiative, an educational framework emphasizing engineering fundamentals set in the context of conceiving, designing, implementing, and operating real-world systems and products. The program has expanded to span 122 participating universities across 39 countries — encompassing more than 10,000 students and more than 600 faculty. In 2011 Crawley received the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education from the National Academy of Engineering, recognizing his “Leadership, creativity, and energy in defining and guiding the CDIO (Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate) Initiative, which has been widely adopted internationally for engineering education.”

Innovative programs with global reach
In addition to CDIO, Crawley has helped to launch and/or lead a number of important programs, serving as the executive director of the Bernard M. Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) Program and the Cambridge-MIT Institute, co-director of the Systems Design and Management Program (SDM), and co-founder and senior advisor of New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET).

“The particular type of engineering education I’ve become excited about in the last 20 years is the idea of project-based education,” says Crawley. “I think we owe it to our students to engage them, deeply and seriously, in challenging educational opportunities. And I think we do that really well at MIT.”
Crawley helped to launch GEL in 2007, with the goal of reintroducing themes of product development, teamwork, and leadership into the engineering curriculum. GEL now reaches 200-300 students each year, includes a graduate student program, and is now fully endowed.

The SDM program offers master’s and certificate programs to early- and mid-career professionals, aiming to educate future technical leaders by taking a holistic approach across disciplines. The program focuses on building students’ skills in the areas of system thinking, management, leadership, technical abilities, and big-picture thinking. 

Crawley co-founded NEET in an effort to re-imagine and rethink undergraduate engineering education, looking at both what and how students should learn. The program was built around the idea that students should be taught in the ways they most want to learn — engaging them and making them active collaborators in their learning. NEET scholars span a variety of majors and departments, working within different research offerings, or “threads,” including autonomous machines, climate and sustainability systems, digital cities, and living machines. Students choose, develop, and implement real-world, socially impactful projects. Launched in 2018, the NEET program now has more than 130 alumni.

Crawley says one of his proudest career accomplishments is helping to launch a new university. From 2011 to 2016 he took leave from MIT to serve as founding president of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), as part of a collaboration between MIT, Skoltech, and the Skolkovo Foundation. “Emotionally and intellectually, the idea of founding this university has to be at the top of my list,” Crawley says. “Most people don’t even think of founding a university as something that’s even possible — most of them have just been around. But all of them started somewhere.” MIT ended its involvement in the collaboration last year, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Reinventing retirement
Crawley’s time on campus actually extends back even before his undergrad studies, as he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“My dad used to bring me to the MIT campus to see interesting things,” he says. “There were summer programs and Saturday programs for local kids to come learn about matrices and coding and so forth — so I was routinely interacting with MIT from the time I was beginning high school.” Those early experiences stuck with him, and Crawley has always viewed MIT as a place to explore, to try new things and test out new ideas, and find communities of people who share that sense of curiosity and excitement. 

“I think we should encourage everyone in the MIT community to take advantage of the opportunities that we provide — to branch out and dig into different things.”

Apart from a sabbatical here and starting a new university there, MIT has been central to Crawley’s life for the past 50 years. Even now, he shows no signs of slowing down. At his retirement party, a common refrain from Crawley’s peers was, “You will never retire,” and he admits he’s excited to put more time into new pursuits. 
“What retirement does is it gives me opportunities to work on things that I wouldn’t be able to do if I’d stayed on the faculty. In a way, I’m doing more!” He’s currently working on three startups with former students and advising on the creation of another new university, among other things.

“As one colleague of mine put it,” Crawley says, “Don’t think of it as retirement, think of it as endless sabbatical.”