Under a Wing

This unusual high school introduces students to key engineering concepts, including the importance of real-world manufacturing.

I could tell my recent visit to Raisbeck Aviation High School in Seattle, Washington, would be very interesting when I parked my rental car under the wing of the original Boeing 747 jumbo jetliner. This historic aircraft is on display at the expansive Museum of Flight, which is right next door to the school. The tip of the plane’s huge wing extends well over the school parking lot.

My main purpose for the visit was to tour the school’s Prototyping Lab, where students have access to a variety of machining and fabricating equipment. This equipment is largely used for student projects, especially the school’s annual entry in regional and national robot competitions. The centerpiece is a Maxiem 1515 waterjet cutting machine from Omax, whose world headquarters are in Kent, Washington.

I sat down with Robert Steele, one of the school’s physics and engineering instructors as well as head coach of its Skunk Works Robotics Team. Robert is understandably proud of the lab, the school and its robotics team (which consistently qualifies to compete on the national level). He explained that the high school focuses heavily on aviation. In fact, a strong interest in aviation is a prerequisite for admission, and about 70 percent of graduates go into engineering—many of them in aviation-related fields. The curriculum is heavily oriented to a pre-engineering program that includes science, mathematics, physics and computer technology. The prototype lab, he says, plays a key role as a “balancing act” for the 400 students enrolled there. It provides a real-world, hands-on experience to complement all that the theoretical learning and classroom study imparts.

“Making things and holding them in their hands teaches them that physical objects have properties such as weight, thickness and size. Parts have to fit together. Manufacturing processes have to be precise and repeatable,” he remarks. These insights into manufacturability will make the students more effective as engineers, he says, because thinking about parts will help them think more clearly about designs. “I don’t want them to design what they can’t make.”

Of course, sound thinking about designing and making parts has been an advantage enjoyed by the robotics team. Students on the team must design, build, test and operate the robotic entry. Each year’s robotic creation involves constructing electromechanical subassemblies, adding sensors, designing control systems and programming software. Robert and other mentors guide them, but the students do their own work on the robot project. “At times, we have to let them fail at certain tasks so they learn the lesson,” he notes.

Although the building next to the Flight Museum is only two years old, the school was originally located in leased space when it was started about 12 years ago. Robert, who joined the faculty two years later, was a strong proponent of a well-equipped prototype lab. In those days, the school relied on the generous support of Omax to allow student work to be produced on waterjet machines in its facility nearby. When the new school building was planned, Robert insisted that waterjet be a prime resource in its in-house prototype lab.

“Waterjet is incredibly flexible—it can cut almost any of the materials the students might need for the school team’s robot or for individual senior projects,” Robert says. The waterjet process is also easy to comprehend and program. Students can see how a 2D design takes form in aluminum, steel, acrylic, rubber or composite. However, they have to think about turning 2D parts into 3D components by bending or folding them to be welded, riveted or nestled together. This exercise develops spatial thinking and forces the students to consider clearances, kerf allowances, tolerances and material behavior. “These are realities that aren’t always apparent when a mind pictures a design or sees it on a CAD screen,” Robert points out.

Although students do not operate the waterjet machine themselves, they are usually present to see their parts produced. The sensory experiences in a shop environment are part of the learning, Robert says. It helps them understand life in a factory, where people, materials and machinery are all harmonized around a goal.

Robert clearly enjoys coaching his robotics team and seeing young engineering minds grow strong through the classes and activities at this special high school. He told me that most students have a mentor, usually a professional from the local aerospace industry. I’ll bet these mentors get the same reward and satisfaction that Robert does working with the students. And the students benefit from the advice, encouragement and practical knowledge the mentors have to share.

After the interview, as I was walking back to the Budget compact where I parked it, I looked up at the huge 747 wing that stretched out so far overhead. With all the earnest talk about teachers, coaches, mentors and their young students, the expression “to take under one’s wing” came to mind. These words usually mean to shelter closely and protect. Now I could imagine another meaning—to inspire to lofty goals, to encourage high aspirations. All schools should do this, in every heads-up and hands-on way possible.