Winging it

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Sarah Scally finds out how a challenge to build a glider is inspiring Year 9 students across the south-west of England

Why is aluminium used so much in the production of aeroplanes? How can you build a light, yet strong, wing? These were the questions posed to a group of Year 9 students from The Gryphon School in Sherborne when they met with representatives from the Flying Start Challenge initiative. This initiative is organised by several aerospace employers in the South-west, including Agusta Westland, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, MBDA, Messier Dowty and Smiths Aerospace as well as the University of the West of England, the West of England Aerospace Forum and the Fleet Air Arm Museum.

These organisations came together five years ago to think of ways to promote careers within the engineering sector, and in particular those within the aerospace industry. The idea that they came up with was to have an annual contest for Year 9 students to design and build a hand-launched glider - and today two engineering graduates from Agusta Westland are explaining the principles of build and manufacture to the Gryphon students.

Some of the details given in the presentation by Brian Mees and Stephen Habgood are quite advanced, yet the 14 students sit listening intently, keen to see the various props that Brian and Stephen have brought along for the talk. They show a three-minute video, highly speeded up, of the assembly of an Airbus A340-600 in Toulouse, France. The students are fascinated by the silent video, to which Brian and Stephen add commentary to ensure that everyone understands what is happening.

We see the aircraft components being bolted together, the engines added to the body and finally the testing of everything - "something you'll have to do to your glider," reminds Brian. Everything shown is explained in an accessible way. The engineers always relate the technology back to the build of the gliders so the students can see that the principles are the same.

The presentations are standardised so all students receive the same information. The challenge can either be run as an after-school activity or as an integral part of lessons. An introductory Balsa wood pack is provided for the structure of the glider, then any other materials are down to the students to provide.

As part of the competition, students have to provide evidence of budget-keeping to ensure they can't go mad with expensive materials. As well as the budget, the judges award marks for the design of the glider, the knowledge of the team regarding aerodynamics and the general design, in addition to knowledge about the project itself. The students are expected to keep a watch on the progress of the project over the 12-week course and even have a brief introduction to concepts such as Gantt charts, for making sure that their gliders are finished in time for the fly-offs.

As former winners of the challenge The Gryphon School was keen to take part again. Three teachers, John Batchelor, James Phillips and Ian White, help to run and organise the weekly meetings. They can see that the initiative addresses various areas of the curriculum and as a specialist business and enterprise school, The Gryphon realises that the links fostered with outside industries are valuable.

"This initiative highlights to the students that there is a link between interesting careers such as engineering with maths and design and technology" explains John Batchelor, head of design and technology.

"Students from last year's winning group did a presentation to the whole of Year 9; they explained what was involved and showed their gliders. These students here today all volunteered, showing that the Flying Start Challenge has really captured their imagination."

Some of the designs already being planned are quite spectacular. One group, Vespertilio, have designed glider wings similar to the structure of a bat's. This, they calculate, will help to keep the glider airborne for longer, ensuring that it travels further for the fly-off. On their design board they have pictures of a bat and other information, researched on the internet in their own time.

Fifteen schools from the South-west region are taking part in this year's challenge, involving some 350 students. Regional fly-offs start early in the year, to whittle the numbers down. The final few then compete in the Grand Final which is held at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton. Here the regional winners compete against each other in a series of engineering challenges - there are even challenges for the teachers to test their mettle.

The museum exhibits, including a prototype Concorde, form an inspirational backdrop to the day's challenges and allow the students to appreciate what aeronautical engineering is all about. There are various trophies to be won and a top prize of pound;1,000 to go towards technology for the school.

We'll have to wait and see if Vespertilio make it to the final - oh, and in case you were wondering, aluminium is light, strong, malleable and resists corrosion, making it ideal for the aeronautical industry.

l Lesson plans, presentations and judging criteria are available for any school to run as part of lessons or to get involved in the Flying Start Challenge.

Tel: Agusta Westland, 01935 705377

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