State-of-the-Art Teaching

March 1, 2007

The Aerospace and Engineering program at Olathe (Kan.) Northwest High School offers state-of-the-art hardware, uses the same software as that used by industry, and is filled with students clamoring to take these demanding courses.

For her role in establishing and running this program, Susan Rippe is the recipient of the Air Force Association’s 2006 Christa McAuliffe Memorial Award for national teacher of the year.

Rippe has more than 20 years’ teaching experience and is a member of the Kansas Science Advisory Council. She now is the Aerospace and Engineering program coordinator and instructor in chemistry.

Rippe came to Olathe when both the school and its Aerospace and Engineering program were brand new. Now in its fourth year, the program is soaring.

The Aerospace and Engineering discipline is a three-year program designed to give students three hours per day of intensive technical studies—in addition to their normal high school programs. Students enter it as sophomores.

The administration tries to “block” the courses together consecutively. “Since we are so project based, oftentimes we need a larger block of time,” Rippe explained.

While the program draws heavily on outside firms for help, the in-house equipment is the envy of most high schools.

“We have LCD [liquid crystal display] projectors in every classroom,” Rippe said. “My classroom doesn’t look like the typical chemistry lab. I have ovens in there so that we can anneal and heat-treat our metals. I have hydraulic presses and I have vacuum casters so that we can mold our metals into shape.”

Big Time Wind Tunnel

Perhaps the top piece of equipment is a research-grade wind tunnel. A lot of high schools may have a tabletop wind tunnel, Rippe said, but few if any have a research-grade one.

The program also has a milling machine so the students can take whatever they create on a computer-aided design and drafting software program (Auto CAD) and mill it out. The current machine works only with wood, but Rippe is hoping soon to have one that works with plastics.

In today’s world, where technology rules, the right software is as important as the right tools. Rippe’s program has a leasing license with one supplier that furnishes the latest software updates to run the Auto CAD system. Besides having the programs to run its milling machine, the department also has a 3-D software program called SolidWorks, which is what is being used in industry. The close partnership with local businesses helps ensure that what is used in the A and E program matches what is in use in the real world.

Sophomores take two specialized courses. One is aerospace and engineering chemistry. It is the regular high school chemistry but is focused on materials that engineers would use and includes metallurgy and the making of different alloys. At one point, Rippe gives students a piece of iron wire and tells them to strengthen it.

“We do a lot of ceramics research, a lot of polymer plastics type research, and some composites,” said Rippe. “We learn chemistry that way so it’s very hands-on, very project based, very team based, very relevant. And that’s really the way we try to structure all of the courses.”

The other hour sophomores take begins with a semester of “principles of technology” followed the second semester by a course in computer-aided drafting, which Rippe says is the workhorse of the engineer.

Junior year, students take aerospace and engineering physics, a course souped up to apply engineering principles to actual projects. For example, some students make a trebuchet—a variety of catapult. They also learn robotics and electrical engineering.

“Our students … will build air-powered cannons and robots, and they do a lot of electrical circuitry in that class,” she said.

The juniors also take aerospace and engineering math along with their regular high school math. When they are learning vectors, for example, they actually build a tower. To learn factoring, they build small balsa wood and Japanese tissue paper airplanes and learn the math principles involved.

The third class they take as juniors is aerospace and engineering CAD II and III: advanced computer-aided drafting.

The senior year offers students several options, such as a senior project. Currently, one team is redesigning the space shuttle. The current shuttle is a glider when it returns to Earth and, as a result, has limited places to land. The students are going to attach engines, redesign the wings and other components, and when finished, run it through a wind-tunnel test to make sure the model could become a full-fledged shuttle with engine power.

Wichita State University is working with the team redesigning the space shuttle. The students send the university design specifications and Auto CAD drawings, and the university will mill it out and test the design in the Wichita State wind tunnel.

Community Support

Rippe credits the school’s advanced equipment to the strong community support it received. Olathe, she says, is an affluent suburb of Kansas City. Three years before the Aerospace and Engineering program started, a team was formed to help design it and others necessary to meet student needs for the 21st century. The school district and the community believe in such programs and support them financially.

As a result, the program operates as a magnet for interested students. They can come from anywhere in the district, and the program draws some from parochial schools and from home schools.

Seniors also have the option of paid internships in the community. The program today has students in 19 internships with various businesses in the Kansas City area. Five paid internships are at Honeywell Aerospace where the students earn high school credit and, most importantly, gain invaluable experience.

The district originally thought the cap for A and E enrollment would be 150, but it now has 185 students. Even so, the school manages to keep class sizes small enough so that students receive personal attention.

Rippe came to the program from a high school in Wichita where she had taught for 20 years. Her smallest class there was 30 students. In Olathe, her largest classes are 21 or 22 students. When they are taking on projects, the small class size is invaluable, she said.

One measure of the program’s success may be the number of scholarships the graduates are offered. Rippe totaled them up last year and found that the 60 graduates had shared a total of $1.4 million in scholarships. (This included a number of scholarships that were turned down because the students accepted others.)

“Their resumes, because of the opportunities they have had, look like nobody else’s when you’re a high school senior” she said. “The number of scholarships that were awarded to them is a real testimony to that.”

One student wanted to go to the Air Force Academy. Last year, he was offered appointments to both the Air Force Academy and the US Naval Academy, she said.

He recently returned and “just wowed my kids,” Rippe said. “Of course he chose the Air Force Academy, but he said, ‘I know I would not have received either of my appointments if it weren’t for this Aerospace and Engineering program.'”

The program has so far accepted every student who has applied. Not all of them are considered top scholars when they come in, and there is attrition because the program is intense and rigorous. For those who wash out of the A and E program, they are still members of Olathe Northwest High School and they simply carry on as regular students.

A number of other high schools have shown interest in the Aerospace and Engineering program, and Rippe encourages them to visit and see presentations. “It seems like easily twice a month we have a group come through that’s interested” because of the huge need for engineering expertise.

“The market will be wide open for engineering,” she said. “Districts all over are calling us and coming in and wanting to start engineering programs.”

The main purpose of the program is to give students a flavor for engineering. “We don’t have to be specialized at the high school level,” Rippe said. “That’s the job of the colleges. What we are providing them is a pretty nice overview. … I think that we are providing a solid foundation for any type of engineering,” she concluded.

Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The 90 Percent Solution,” with Adam J. Hebert, appeared in the October 2006 issue.