A blimp crosses the finish line in the atrium of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building, and five students cheer as their time is announced to the bystanders: in the end-of-semester competition for their class, they’re currently in first place. Behind them, a stream of middle school students and parents follow their group leaders into the student lounge. Scattered throughout the building are volunteers, just a few of the ninety students who dedicated part of their Saturday to introducing the visiting students to the world of aerospace engineering.
This is Aerospace Day.
December 5, 2015 marked the third semester in a row that the University of Michigan aerospace engineering department hosted Aerospace Day. This event is more than just a year and a half old, though: it’s a project a decade in the making.
Aerospace Day has become the department’s biggest outreach event, bringing in young students from across Michigan, but at its core are two introductory aerospace engineering classes. The freshman-level Introduction to Aerospace Engineering (ENGR 100), where students build and race blimps, was first taught ten years ago; the sophomore-level companion class AEROSP 205, where students build and compete with hovercrafts, came about a few years later. Dr. Pete Washabaugh, the professor for both courses, explained that he wanted to provide students with the opportunity to build a complete system early in their academic careers to expose them to the challenges they would face later in industry, so they can make mistakes now instead of on larger projects where lives may be at stake.
Each semester, these two classes culminate in a final competition, giving students, generally in teams of five, the opportunity to present their projects to an audience and compete against other teams. But Washabaugh wanted the final competitions to be bigger than simply an academic exercise. After years of trying to build a partnership between these competitions and student organizations on campus, he finally found the right group: the student branch of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, or AIAA.
Aerospace Day, built around these two competitions, started in the fall of 2014. It began in part to support the competitions for Washabaugh’s classes, but to its founders Chris Reynolds and Cauê Borlina, both current aerospace engineering seniors, the event meant much more than that.
Reynolds and Borlina wanted to reinvent outreach to make it bigger, spanning more topics and including more students.
By the first Aerospace Day, the two-year-old AIAA outreach committee was looking for ways to expand. “The events we started with were exciting with rocket launches and balsa gliders,” said Reynolds, who started the outreach committee when he was a freshman, “but we quickly noticed that it is sort of the same event every time.” Reynolds and Borlina wanted to reinvent outreach to make it bigger, spanning more topics and including more students.
With that, Aerospace Day was born, meant to increase exposure of the two competitions and provide a diverse set of experiences for the visiting students and parents. “Aerospace Day is a showcase of Michigan engineering, specifically aerospace, and how we can be leaders in almost anything we do,” said Reynolds.
This semester, the outreach committee made its mark once again with the largest Aerospace Day yet. More than 500 students, parents, and staff filled the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building and the neighboring Gorguze Family Laboratory on December 5. These numbers included 120 visiting students, aged 6 to 16, ranging from families in Ann Arbor to engineering clubs as far away as Midland.
Throughout the seven rotations that made up Aerospace Day, these students had the opportunity to learn about student project teams, explore the department’s resources, and build part of a giant blimp – the newest addition to the Aerospace Day activities, giving students the opportunity to contribute to their own engineering project before watching it fly through the FXB atrium at the end of the day. From paper airplane competitions to wind tunnel tours to hovercraft flying, there was never a dull moment; even the lunch break provided a learning opportunity, as students and parents had the chance to speak with Corey Brooker, a Michigan aerospace engineering alum who currently works at Lockheed Martin as the Orion lead systems integration engineer. And, with volunteers stationed throughout the building, there was never a shortage of current students who wanted to share their stories and inspire future Michigan engineers.
“Volunteering for Aerospace Day was a chance to generate excitement in the next generation of engineers and to give back to an incredible place that I’ve been blessed to be a part of,” said Aaron Lu, a sophomore in aerospace engineering. He was part of the team who designed the massive blimp and, along with three other current engineering students, led a team of visiting students through the seven stations.
“Seeing how much the students enjoyed learning about aerospace engineering made it all worth it.”
Lu isn’t alone in this sentiment. Almost universally, he and the other volunteers not only enjoyed working with the visiting students but also wished something like Aerospace Day had existed when they were younger. “I volunteered at Aerospace Day because I knew that this was an event that I would have enjoyed as a middle schooler,” said sophomore Arman Aznavorian. “Seeing how much the students enjoyed learning about aerospace engineering made it all worth it.”
The visiting students and the volunteers weren’t the only ones who had learning experiences that weekend. At the same time that the students were going through the seven rotations, more than a hundred freshmen and sophomores were presenting and racing their blimps and hovercrafts. “AEROSP 205 is definitely the highlight of this fall semester,” said Lu, who also participated in the ENGR 100 blimp course last year. “It was a class that pushed my comfort zones… In the end, it culminated in Aerospace Day which was an incredible day filled with success and failure, excitement and disappointment, but above all there was the incredible feeling of satisfaction and happiness.”
Between the volunteers, student project team representatives, and students competing with their blimps and hovercrafts, close to half of the entire aerospace engineering undergraduate student body came out to the FXB on Aerospace Day to share their experiences with the visiting students – a truly incredible testament to the passion and camaraderie these aerospace engineering students feel every day.
Moving forward, the biggest challenge is size: there are more people interested than Aerospace Day, at this point, can handle. This semester, registration filled up a mere 36 hours after it opened in early November. By the end of November, there were an additional 70 students on the waitlist.
As of right now, there isn’t much space in the FXB for the event to grow larger. Next semester, one of the AIAA outreach committee’s primary goals will be expanding Aerospace Day to accommodate more students and increase its impact on prospective engineers.
It’s a good problem to have.
“Looking back to when we did the first one… I cannot feel happier,” said Borlina about how quickly Aerospace Day has grown. “People love to experience engineering and get to know our department.”
To see photos of Aerospace Day visit the Michigan Aerospace Flickr page!