Kids love to fly.
And it was the thrill of flight that lured thousands of youngsters and their parents who came to the USA Science and Engineering Expo Saturday and Sunday in Washington, D.C., to the booth created by the NSF Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, headquartered at Kansas University.
What brought them in like a carnival midway barker was the brightly colored airplane held aloft by scaffolding. A stuffed Jayhawk toy sat inside the cockpit, but really the kids were in control.
More than a quarter of a million people strolled through the Expo displays October 23 and 24 at the National Mall and nearby areas and tried their hand at the interactive fun. The National Science Foundation-funded center was the sole exhibit from the Sunflower State. The center creates new tools and technologies to study changes in the world’s polar ice, and is known for its expertise in radars and unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.
The CReSIS booth let visitors guide the meter-long plane, outfitted with radar, over a specially prepared “glacier” made of foam layers. The radar would present a real-time image of the glacier, showing the glacier’s thickness, its layers and the bedrock below.
Austin Arnett, an electrical engineering graduate student at KU and graduate research assistant at CReSIS, explained the significance of understanding a glacier’s layers to hundreds of visitors during his shift.
“Each year you can kind of get an idea of how much snow fell, how thick it is, how dense it is and if there’s any water running through the snow. We can get an idea of how much ice is there, currently, and how much was there last year, the year before and the year before so you can tell if it’s increasing or decreasing in size based on these radar measurements.”
Visitors also could learn how to control an RC plane through a flight simulator. The center uses the system to train pilots before sending them out to the field with one-of-a-kind aircraft they’ve developed to carry radars in harsh arctic climates.
“It’s unmanned. It flies itself on autopilot. The takeoff and landing are actually done by a person,” explained Bill Donovan, an aerospace engineering doctoral student and CReSIS graduate researcher.
Through the course of the day, CReSIS staff gave out hundreds of Jayhawk pins, paper airplanes, face tattoos and thousands of pens from partner institution Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.
Kids lined up four and five deep for their turn at the flight simulator. The chance to fly a plane was the star of the day and was an opportunity to introduce children to loftier ideas, such as how to use aircraft for scientific discovery.
Like most children, these kids were born engineers. They dove into devices without waiting for instructions. They just started doing. The devices had to be durable, too, because kids put every ounce of energy they had into pushing buttons, knobs and levers to make the plane “fly” from one end of the booth to the other or to perform aerobatic maneuvers on the simulator.
At each day’s end it was clear, that whether it’s atop their daddy’s shoulders or behind an RC controller of a flight simulator, the art and act of flying elicits smiles and shouts of joy from children.
Sustainable Energy Shines Briefly
Tiny solar powered racers from another university stole the show early Saturday morning when the video monitors and computers of this tech-heavy alley of Expo overloaded the delicate power system. The balsa wood cars, small enough to be held in a man’s hand, would zip through the corridor only to sputter to a stop in the shadows. Of course, after power was restored and thousands and thousands of visitors packed the lane, the racers retreated to their home booth for safety. The sun was still shining, but there was no place to run.