March 23, 2009
As a woman, I hate to report that the team that won a U.S. Department of Energy engineering competition last weekend was all girls, as if to say, “Check out the girls! They can be engineers, just like boys!” I mean of course they can. But I have to admit that in a historically guy-dominated field like aeronautical engineering—the teams were competing to design an efficient aircraft wing—it’s something of a shake-up that of the ten high schools that made it to the national finals the winner was the only all-girl team, from the Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii. They got a BIG trophy at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Saturday night, $3,000 for Iolani School’s science department and a really nice model of a Citation X from Cessna, one of the event sponsors. (really nice; I wanted it.) And each of the seven team members got an iPod Shuffle (which I also wanted).
How did they win?
First, by crunching numbers—but all the teams did that. Under DOE auspices, Parametric Technology Corporation donated PRO/Engineer CAD software to all participating high school science departments. All the teams started with the same given fuselage and requirement to find the most efficient wing—the one that produced the most lift with the least drag—and so minimize fuel consumption at a cruising speed of 400 knots. Some top-ranking teams started with various airfoils downloaded from an online database assembled by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They used the software to compute lift-to-drag ratios based on the airfoils in combination with a number of other variables—wing area, chord length, angle of attack, degree of sweep, taper—that led to a mind-boggling number of possibilities and long, long hours waiting for their computers to spit out results.
The competition was called the Real World Design Challenge because the problems that students have to solve are ones facing working engineers. Every airline today would jump at a more efficient aircraft wing, for example, and the problems in future challenges—this was the inaugural competition—will be likewise real. Also, the circumstances of the competition are real-world: the software was the same kind that professional engineers use, wasn’t always student-friendly, and in some cases showed up only weeks before the deadline.
My money had been on the second-place (coed) team from Newburyport High School in Newburyport, Massachusetts. (There wasn’t gambling, actually, but I offer the idea to the Department of Energy to increase interest in the event next year.) I may have been betting on them because that’s the team I watched rehearse their presentation earlier in the day, but they also expressed their results in a way I could understand: Their wing had a lift/drag ratio of 16-point-something, only slightly more efficient than a 747 wing, team member Irene Jacqz was able to point out. (Jacqz has been accepted early decision to Columbia University. Hey, Columbia: wise move.)
While the team rehearsed, I asked their coach, Sarah Leadbeater, how much she had helped them. “I teach introduction to Computer Assisted Design, industrial design, and Web design,” she said—not aerodynamics. “The first time I saw their presentation was yesterday.” ’Nuff said.
Before they started on the state challenge in November (state winners went on to the national challenge), a few of the students from Newburyport knew about lift, drag, thrust, and gravity from their physics classes, but none of them had heard the terms “wave drag” or “supercritical wing,” the key to efficiency in their design. “I had heard the word ‘transonic,’ but I didn’t know what it meant,” said Phil Arets, who smoothly explained during his team’s allotted 15 minutes that they narrowed the original 12 airfoils they considered to five “because their research had shown that airfoils with flatter tops would eliminate wave drag.”
I have a theory about why the Hawaii team won, but the judging was confidential, so I have no way to test my hypothesis. Of all the teams that presented, only the Hawaii team showed unusual wing designs that they tested but abandoned. They tried forward sweep, for example, and showed a picture of what they called a “curved wing,” which they thought would join to the fuselage with less disruption to the airflow. (The curved wing looked especially innovative, not to mention aesthetically pleasing. I’d never seen anything like it, but the students mentioned a reference for it that I didn’t catch.) In both cases, the team found that drag went literally off the charts, and, not having the time to pursue these unconventional designs, they went back to the tried and true.
If aerospace companies are so worried about a future labor force, maybe they should borrow a few practices from professional baseball. Saturday night would have been a good time to show up at the National Air and Space Museum with scouts and signing bonuses. They could have picked off any number of brainy extroverts from the high school teams at the reception, choosing among mini-cheeseburgers, chunks of pizza, and cookies in the shape of swept-wing aircraft dipped in chocolate. I ate two of each, feeling much more confident than I ever have that social security funds will be there when I retire.
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