Students glide through NASA design challenge

Chris Chilelli is hoping to gain support for a NASA-inspired challenge to become a part of the curriculum throughout the Cabarrus County Schools.

The former educational designer at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, has been the school system's science curriculum specialist since 2005. Last month, he introduced seventh-graders at J.N. Fries Middle School to the "Can A Shoebox Fly Challenge." It was developed by NASA's Digital Learning Network, where Chilelli and his wife, Laurie, used to work.

During the shoebox challenge, teams of students attempt to produce a design that incorporates a shoebox as part of a working glider. Materials ranged from posterboard, foam and balsa wood to dowels, string and modeling clay.

"You come in thinking, 'I don't know what's going to happen,' " said Chilelli. "But it exceeded our expectations."

J.N. Fries Middle started the county's first STEM magnet program for middle school students this year. STEM programs focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. About 40 students in Frank Parrish's seventh grade STEM and International Studies classes served as "test" students.

They spent 10 days on the challenge, learning about gliders, flight dynamics and design principles. They had to create blueprints of their aircraft before construction could begin, and they were allowed one test flight before making modifications.

Students set out to achieve the best Glide-Slope Ratio (distance flown divided by launch height). Chilelli said an out-of-state high school class, which devoted about a month to the project, set the record at 8.0 in 2005.

Keilen McNeil and Angelo Michel recorded a GSR of 7.6., beating out 15 other teams and setting the record for middle school students throughout the county and the state, and possibly the nation, said Chilelli.

"We nearly tied the high school students," said Angelo. "It just shows if you work hard, then you can accomplish what you're going for."

"I was really surprised," said Keilen. "We're seventh-graders, and those high-schoolers got an 8.0, which is pretty close to what we got. Never underestimate sixth- and seventh-graders."

The NASA-inspired challenge was adapted as a stand-alone classroom activity through a $700 mini-grant from the N.C. Science Teachers Association. Chilelli is looking to build a "critical mass" of support for the program to be implemented throughout the district in the coming year.

Chilelli and Parrish were to present their adaptation of the challenge to science teachers across the state at the association's annual Science Conference Nov. 10-11 in Greensboro. They also plan to present in January at UNC Charlotte's annual STEM workshop and at a statewide STEM conference at Duke University in February.

"They set the record here for middle school students throughout North Carolina, so everyone is going to try and beat them now," said Chilelli. "For their first attempt, these students, in only two weeks of intense work, have done an outstanding job. They're pretty excited about the fact that they've come so close to a high school team and had less time to do it."

The first time Chilelli made a glider, he said, it achieved a little better than a 3.0 GSR. He and Parrish made a glider this round and achieved a GSR of 9.0. NASA scientists would probably achieve a GSR of 10, he said.

Partners Jaiden Dunehew and Dennis Donath, who achieved the second-best GSR of 7.0, said watching their craft fly was the reward for their hard work.

Amir Abdulraheem and Braxton Newsome achieved a 5.6 GSR, the third best.

"They showed us some pictures of real gliders, and we saw the long, skinny wingspan, so we thought we'd do that with a big tail to stabilize it and not a real long fuselage," said Newsom.

They said they would change a few things if they had it to do over.

"I'd make it more sturdy and more compact next time," said Amir.

The NASA Digital Learning Network Challenges were first introduced as live, interactive videoconference-based programs, where students would link up with NASA instructors to work on problem-based design challenges that focused on the engineering process.

"We try to take everything that NASA does and reinterpret it so students can get access to it and the teachers can have access to it," said Chilelli. "It's to get them into that pipeline of science, technology, engineering and mathematics."

Jocelyn Peay, Josselyn Rivera and Jamie Williams called their group J3. They achieved a 2.9 GSR.

"Our back was too heavy and too long, so it kind of broke when we flew it in the air," said Jocelyn.

"Next time, I'd pay more attention to the weight and I'd want more test time," said Josselyn.

The challenge is open-ended, but aircraft must be launched by hand, travel at least 9 feet and achieve a positive glide-slope ratio to mark a successful flight.

"Everyone sort of had their own ideas and designs of what they thought would be good," said Williams. "It turns out the smaller, more compact designs tended to fly better."