Georgia Southern’s Engineering Design Challenge gives high schoolers the opportunity to design for outer space

Georgia Southern’s Engineering Design Challenge (EDC), a program sponsored by NASA’s Georgia Space Grant Consortium and Gulfstream Aerospace, came to a close last month. In its seventh year running, the annual program took place over the course of several weeks and offered area high school students the opportunity to learn from their STEM teachers, Georgia Southern engineering students, and practicing engineers who mentored the student teams through the planning of their project using fundamental mathematics, physics, and design engineering. The 2021 theme was Eagle-ROAR2 (Remotely Operated Aerial Recovery), and teams were required to design a 3D printed tool that could attach to a flying drone and simulate that excavation and delivering of lunar soil.

Five high school teams participated this year: two teams from Portal High School,  a team from Jenkins High School, a team from Calvary Day School, and a team of homeschooled students . Each were provided a stock drone, which they learned how to fly. They then worked on designing the drone attachment, which was 3D printed by Georgia Southern, before testing and troubleshooting it during drone flight. The final competition was based on which team’s design worked best as well as their presentation of their design process and understanding of technical concepts.

Dr. Johnson (L) works with a high school student to connect the student’s attachment to the drone.

Photo Credit: Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University

“This year, the theme was based on NASA’s Artemis mission, which is to get astronauts back on the moon. That’s where we came up with the idea that students had to design something that could excavate soil from the moon,” said Dr. Wayne Johnson, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Southern University and Program Director for the EDC. 

Dr. Johnson explained that students were challenged in new ways because of restrictions brought about by COVID, but these challenges created more in depth learning opportunities. One difference was that students were not flying the drones during the final competition as they have in years past. Instead, an independent drone flyer was brought in on the final day to fly all of the teams’ drones and test the attachments they had designed. “Just like in outer space, the astronauts are the ones doing the work, not the engineers. The teams had to do what real engineers do, which is anticipate things that could go wrong and be more thoughtful about their design. It mimicked more closely what real design work is like.”

During the final competition, an independent drone flyer was brought in to assess each attachments ability to retrieve “lunar soil.”

Photo Credit: Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University

Another new component brought upon by COVID was that all student teams were required to make a video explaining the physics of drone flight and how they came up with their design rather than present in-person.  “The video piece gave us the opportunity to bring in other high schoolers who may not have considered an engineering career path. Several students were able to be a part of the competition due to the visual element, which they helped with. The presentations were phenomenal. They were on par with undergraduate presentations,” said Dr. Johnson. 

On top of receiving mentorship from practicing engineers and their STEM teachers, students had the benefit of working directly with Georgia Southern students majoring in engineering. The college students coached the high schoolers on engineering principles and computer aided design, meeting with their team on a weekly basis to guide them throughout the project. Shaen Mehrzed, a Georgia Southern student majoring in Aerospace Engineering, served as one of the coaches this year.

Georgia Southern student Shaen Mehrzed (R) works with students on the Jenkins team to help them design their drone attachment.

Photo Credit: Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University

 “[Projects] like this I am very excited for. It felt like I was working on a real-world project.” said Mehrzed, who was wowed and inspired by the team he coached, the Jenkins students. “They were very impressive in terms of what they were able to organize and engineer given the times and circumstances of having to be online…It was just a drone, but the problem was pretty tough because we only had so much to work with.” Overall Mehrzed felt the students’ passion for engineering was a big lesson for him as well.  “It taught me that if you have a team that’s very passionate and talented in their field, all it takes is hard work.”

The final competition took place on April 17th. Fifty percent of the judging was based on an attachments ability to collect the soil. Whichever team could collect the most amount of soil in three minutes, proved the best design. The other half of the judging was based on the video presentations, which showcased the students understanding of the physics of drone flight as well as their documentation and explanation of their design process. The winning teams were as follows:

Overall Winner – Portal High School

First Runner-up – Jenkins High School

Second Runner-up – the homeschooled team

Best Presentation – Jenkins High School

First Runner-up for Presentation – Calvary Day School

As for next year’s competition, Dr. Johnson says the ultimate goal is to keep students excited about engineering. “We are thinking about continuing with the drones again. Right now the devices they have developed that attach to the drones are static, so I’m thinking about brining in an electromechanical device that moves to collect something for 2022 to teach other aspects of engineering.”

You can watch all of the 2021 student teams’ presentations by clicking here. To learn more about Georgia Southern’s EDC program, visit their webpage here.