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Aerospace Engineering Camps Seek to Ignite High Schoolers’ Interest in Aerospace, STEM

July 17, 2018

An aerospace GAMES camper flies a simulation plane.

Remember building and flying a kite as a kid? Remember the exhilaration you felt as you watched it soar way up high? Even more rewarding is the feeling participating 9–12th grade high school students are getting this summer as they launch the gliders and rockets they designed and built during Aerospace Engineering’s (AeroE) three residential camps: Aerospace Engineering GAMES and two Illinois Aerospace Institutes (IAI). Eyes focused heavenward, the campers watch them soar (or let’s be realistic—“crash and burn!”) during the end-of-the-week launch event—all courtesy of the coordinator of the three camps, Brian Woodard, and his AeroE team.

More than 100 students are participating in AeroE’s three camps. For instance, 26 high school girls ranging from incoming freshmen to incoming seniors and mostly from Illinois (plus one from Florida and one from Texas), got a chance to explore aerospace engineering and aviation during the 7th GAMES (Girls' Adventures in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) camp, a one-week camp for girls only from July 8–14. Plus, 80 more participants (40 each) are participating in the two coed Illinois Aerospace Institute (IAI) camps on June 17–23 then again on July 29–August 4, 2018.

An aerospace GAMES camper works on building her rocket.

While the highlight of the week is launching one’s aircraft on Friday afternoon, before students can even begin to design them, they must first learn some of the principles of flight during sessions about flight mechanics, aerodynamics, aerospace structures, orbital mechanics, and propulsion systems. Add to that the hands-on experience of building and launching their own aircraft, and by camp’s end, participants hopefully have a better understanding of the forces that keep airplanes up in the air during flight; composite materials used to build aircraft; satellites, such as how they stay in orbit; plus how to launch rockets and satellites into space.

In addition, during the Wednesday field trip to Parkland College’s Institute of Aviation, students get to experience a flight simulator, a control tower, and ride in a fire engine. Plus, GAMES campers got to fly a small airplane. According to Woodard, “To go on a small airplane is a really unique experience, because the feel in the air is way different, and you can see everything.”

Two aerospace GAMES campers show off their rockets they've built.

Piloting the students through these hands-on opportunities at the Institute of Aviation is Chief Pilot Don Talleur and his team of instructors. He shares why he and his team do camps like these—to hopefully get some students intrigued with aviation.

“First, it's good for the student to have exposure to different careers, opportunities, and of course, it's good for us, too, because we're planning for the future within the career field that we teach,” Talleur says. He indicates that a small number of these campers will at some point “return to this field or decide to pick up flying as something they want to do on the side.” While he says it’s good for the campers, he admits, “But it’s also good for us in terms of marketing for future students. All around, I think it’s a win-win for everyone involved.”

Brian Woodard with GAMES campers as they test their rockets they built.

Like Talleur, Brian Woodard, who coordinates the camps, also believe they’re good for the campers. In fact, he’s so sold on the positive benefits for campers, that he’s had some role in AeroE’s camps for the last 13 years. While it’s his 7th GAMES camp, Woodard’s been involved with IAI for even longer—he began helping out as a grad student at Illinois, way back in 2006. Why so many years devoted to these summer outreach camps? For one, because of the unique experiences they offer students.

“Seeing these students have these experiences that they would not have normally have had is so exciting,” he explains. “The GAMES camps especially—I feel like a lot of these girls have never been given the opportunity to build stuff and do these projects. We build model rockets and gliders, and a lot of these students seem to spend a lot of time on their computers or devices and so they have not done a lot of building stuff. So we cut, glue, and tape to get all these models together. Just giving them the opportunity to do it and show them that they can be successful at doing it, I think is great.”

And while for some students, attending one of AeroE’s camps is just a fun but educational learning experience, for others, the experience actually helps to set them on a trajectory leading to their future career. And some have chosen to prepare for that career at Illinois. In fact, Woodard is aware of a number of undergrads, whom he calls “little success stories,” who ended up in AeroE at Illinois after participating in one of their camps. And for the first time ever, one little success story—ex-GAMES camper Suzanne Peterson—will be working alongside Woodard this summer as part of the GAMES staff.

Suzanne Peterson (right) checking to make sure a rocket has the correct alignment.

A rising senior in Aerospace at Illinois, Peterson, who came to one of the first GAMES camps Woodard ever led, took a one-week break from her research this summer to help him with GAMES. She volunteered to help because of the impact GAMES had on her. For one, she says it opened up the possibility of studying engineering.

A GAMES camp junkie, (Peterson had attended five, including Aerospace), as a high school senior, looking back at all of her GAMES camp experiences, she said to herself, “If I were to pick one of these tracks to go into for the rest of my life, it would have to be aerospace.”

Based on the impact Aerospace GAMES had on her career choices, she hoped to have a similar impact on some of today’s students.

“I really enjoyed my time at GAMES camp and I feel like I learned a lot from the lab assistants that taught the classes and sessions, and I'm really passionate about outreach and I would like to, maybe, be that for somebody else.”

Jessica Hart (right) watches as a aerospace GAMES camper tests her rocket.

Another camp instructor, Jessica Hart, who just graduated from Aerospace Engineering in May, also agreed to help with GAMEs camp. Hart had worked the camp for the last two years and really enjoyed it. “So I kinda’ knew what it was going on already, and Dr. Woodard asked me to do it again since I was already here, and I said 'Sure. I love it.'”

What’s Hart’s dream job, now that she has her degree? “That's tough,” she admits. “The big dream is to be an astronaut, right?” she says.

A erospace GAMES camper flies a similation plane.

Should that not pan out, Hart, whose specialization was space theory design, which included research with optimization code for small satellite systems, would also enjoy working with small satellite systems or some kind of rocket compulsion at Orbital ATK.

Hart says bringing high school kids onto campus for camps is “a great opportunity to get them exposed to a little bit of what college life is like. So it maybe makes their decision a little easier to come here or not…Then it also gives them a little exposure to the different engineering fields we have here at Illinois, depending on what GAMES camp they do. And I think that's pretty great.

Hart believes she’s seen some engineers among the GAMES girls. “Some of them are pretty bright,” she acknowledges. “I'd say, yeah, they definitely all have a very creative side to them. I've seen that just within the last two days of their model-building sessions, and a couple of them asked some really good questions during the lectures. So definitely.”

Two GAMES campers wait for their turn at the Aviation Institute.

In addition to the activities scheduled throughout the day, another exciting learning opportunity takes place on Tuesday evening of all the Aerospace camps. Two years ago, Woodard added visiting Illinois’ Observatory to the agenda so he could spend more time with the participants——and it’s turned out to be a big hit with the students.

“All the students love it,” says Woodard, “and they think it is so cool. Usually during that time of year, Saturn is in the southern sky. Through the telescope, you can see Saturn! With the rings and everything! We added that, and the students have really gotten a big kick out of it!”

Bailey Vincer (right) gets to explore the inside of a plane at the Aviation Institute.

One student who particularly enjoyed the observatory visit was GAMES camper Bailey Vincer, a rising freshman at Hononeghah Community High School, who called visiting the observatory “awesome!” She adds, “We got lucky because it had just rained earlier in the day, but it cleared up. So we saw Jupiter and four of its moons, and we also saw Saturn and its rings.”

Vincer has been passionate about astronomy ever since she was in 4th grade. “I never knew exactly what it was I wanted to do, but I've always had this passion to work for NASA.” Then, a couple years ago, she found out about astronautical engineering, which she found “really interesting.” So when her mom told her about this aerospace camp, they decided that it would be a really good experience for her to get exposed to aerospace, which could eventually lead to astronautical engineering.

Her dream job? “I really want to build, design, and test spacecraft—which is really what astronautical engineering is—there's many jobs within it, but that's what I want to do.”

Vincer’s favorite thing about the camp has been the hands-on activities—building the model gliders and the rockets. “Not only are you building it,” she says. “You're applying what you learned in the classroom to a hands-on project. It teaches you a lot while still having fun at the same time.”

Aerospace GAMES camper, Evelyn Ashley.

Another Aerospace GAMES participant, Evelyn Ashley from Bethany, Illinois (about an hour south of Springfield), a rising freshman at Okaw Valley High School, is pretty sure that she’s going to do some type of engineering. She participated in Aerospace GAMES camp to learn more about aerospace and aeronautical engineering. “I am just trying out different aspects of engineering,” she says. “It's been really fun, and I've learned a lot.”

Subha Samaskadan, a rising junior at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has always been interested engineering, “but not really with aerospace,” she explains, “so I just wanted to try it out.”

Samaskadan was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of the activities. “We're talking aerodynamics, and we’re actually getting to see it when we’re building gliders and rockets. We're gonna go fly in a plane. That's actually really awesome! I didn't think we were going to do as many hands-on activities.”

She was also pleased with the amount of exercise she got, reporting that, “We walk almost every day!”

While she really liked the hands-on stuff, she indicates that her favorite was learning about orbitals: “For some reason, orbitals really interested me, and we spent about an hour talking about it, and I really enjoyed it.” Some of the things they discussed were satellites, how to identify orbit shapes, and different types of orbits.

An aerospace GAMES camper takes photos while they test their rockets.

She also appreciated that, because the camp was residential, she had a good dorm experience, which she felt was “a really good experience to have in my opinion.”

Her overall assessment of the camp? “I was not expecting this camp to be this fun,” she continues. “There's a stigma going around an engineering camp rather than an outdoors camp, and people will call you a nerd, but it's worth it, I don't care what people call me because it's really fun being out here.”

Story and Photos by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative
More: 8-12 Outreach, Aerospace Engineering, GAMES, GAMES: Aerospace, Summer Camp, Women in STEM, 2018

For additional I-STEM articles about Aerospace GAMES camps, see:

Aerospace GAMES campers get ready to test their rockets.