About 20 inner-city Des Moines middle school students spent the past week learning about flight at a special summer camp sponsored by Iowa State University. It was part of an effort to bring science and art together into one educational package.
On a breezy morning outside the Grubb Y-M-C-A on Des Moines’s near north side, the project leader of the DAVinCI Flight Camp, Chris Whitmer, is giving some final instructions before takeoff.
“Before you throw, one last check, does it balance?" he asks the students. "You might want to wait until the wind goes a little bit down.”
Whitmer works for Ames-based VSI Aerospace Engineering, a design and software company, which has developed a video game to help young people build their own flying machines. The students are about to test fly the results of a week of experimentation.
“What they do is they lay out a glider inside the game," Whitmer explains. "They change parameters and build math models that describe it, then they fly it inside a simulator that’s inside the game, and once they get it to where they like it and it’s doing really good, and they’ve all agreed it’s a good design, they can export it to a 3-D printer and start building it in the real world.”
If that sounds a bit wonky, Whitmer says the game aspect makes learning more fun.
“Maybe kids who don’t necessarily identify themselves as a STEM guy, as a science or a math guy, are really good at doing games," he says. "Whenever they feel like they’re doing something that’s fun and not learning, even though they’re learning, that’s a great way to sneak it in.”
Most of the kids at the DAVinCI Flight camp are part of a joint effort by Iowa State University and the Des Moines Public Schools called ISU 4U Promise. It’s an attempt to steer students from two Des Moines inner-city elementary schools – Moulton and King – toward college. This is the first year for the flight camp and it appealed to 11-year-old Eddie Mitchell.
“Because it sounded really fun," he says. "When I grow up I want to be a scientist and learn more, so I wanted to learn and that’s why I came here.”
It also caught the attention of 11-year-old Sarah Terry, but for a different reason.
“I kind of like taking stuff apart and putting it back together, and see how different stuff works together,” she says.
The flight camp is primarily aimed at stirring the interest of students in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. But the director of ISU 4U Promise, Katherine Richardson Bruna, says adding a design element to the creation of the aircraft introduces art into the acronym.
“There is a movement in STEM to add an A and make it STEAM," she says. "There also is a movement in STEM education to add a D to that and make it STEAMED. The D for democracy, understanding the role of science in society.”
As the students make final adjustments to their gliders, Chris Whitmer says it’s been a satisfying week.
“I always learn a ton of stuff. Patience," he says with a laugh. "But I’m learning just how much kids can do when you give them the right tools and you give them a chance.”
Not every glider toss ends well. Many stall and plummet nose first to the ground. Others are caught by the wind and spun around crazily. But as Whitmer tells the students “if it crashes, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a learning experience.