High Schoolers Design Better Way to Feed the World

This week, teams of high school students from around the United States gathered in Washington DC for the final leg of the Real World Design Challenge, a state-level and national competition focused on solving some of today’s most pressing issues while sparking interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Real World Design Challenge (RWDC) is supported by public-private partnerships between industry, government and schools and provide young people an opportunity to use professional engineering tools—to the tune of millions of dollars of free software—to hone their skills.

The competition—defined by industry and usually focused around aeronautics—draws the interest of big businesses across the board, from BAE Systems, Honeywell, and Lockheed Martin, to NASA and the FAA.

Challenges vary each year and have included designing an environmentally friendly two-man sport aircraft and the design of an unmanned aircraft system which can be used to locate missing children.

This year, students were tasked with designing an unmanned aircraft system to support precision agriculture, specifically using sensors to monitor and assess crop conditions with the goal of maximizing crop yields.

With massive population growth, the World Bank estimates we could be experiencing significant food shortages as early as 2030, and researchers who have studied crop yields suggest that agricultural productivity will have to rise by at least 60 percent in order to meet future demand.

Monitoring the health of crops and identifying pest outbreaks plays a huge part in ensuring successful yields.

The teams researched how invasive species like the European corn borer impact yields and how early detection can help. Students employed a systems engineering design and integration approach to design the components, subsystems and operational methods for their unmanned aircraft.  There were tight  design and cost restrictions as well as a mandate to find alternative uses for the finished craft in order to improve its marketability.

Stakes were high in the competition, with the winners—this year it was South Burlington High School, Vermont—walking away with a $50,000 scholarship from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a huge boost to their resume.

Similar to past years, the designs presented this week were outstanding, the caliber sometimes hard to grasp.

“Many professionals told us that high school students could not do sophisticated designs,” says RWDC founder Ralph Coppola. “Now those people are strong supporters of the challenge.”

Coppola, who began his career as a high-school teacher in Newark, New Jersey, believes RWDC offers an invaluable and affordable way for students and teachers to get involved with STEM.

“Our biggest limitation as educators is we don’t give students enough credit and challenge them,” he says. Challenging students is the key.”

Last year’s champions—the Aeronautical Dolphins of the Marianas, who returned to compete this year—would agree.

“Each year’s challenge presents a chance to learn, and I love to innovate,” says Marianas team member Jill Ann Arad.” Participating in this challenge has greatly influenced my perspectives on STEM.

If the program’s core goal is to inspire kids to go onto STEM fields and careers, it seems to be working. So far, one-hundred percent of students who have participated in RWDC have gone on to university and 90 percent of them go into engineering fields.

Three of the young women on the Marianas team say the competition has sparked a deep interest in engineering, and one member of the team has already decided to embark on a STEM-related career path.

Next year’s challenge, just announced, will be a continuation of the agriculture theme, this time focused on the efficient and safe dispersal of pesticides.

Image courtesy of South Burlington High School

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