Rowland Hall equips students with the skills and experiences they need to thrive in a dynamic world. We believe education is active, and that deep, authentic learning experiences engage students in powerful ways, enabling them to view themselves as innovators and creators. Our new vision and strategic priorities are helping to center and formalize this work, but it’s long been a part of the Rowland Hall experience, inspiring generations of students to pursue, create, and share knowledge both in and outside the classroom. In the past year alone, we’ve watched many of our young scientists and engineers, fueled by their personal passions, tackle real-world problems and offer innovative solutions designed to better our shared world. This fall, we’re spotlighting some of their stories. (Be sure to also check out "Ruchi Agarwal Named Runner-up in National Stockholm Junior Water Prize Competition," "Research Science: Taking Classroom Discoveries to the International Level," and "Max Smart ’22 and Science Teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida Published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences.")
For many, air travel is a necessity in today’s world. It’s easier, faster, and, in many cases, cheaper than other transportation options. But there’s an environmental cost to that convenience: emissions. Currently, the aviation sector accounts for more than two percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, an environmental impact that scientists and engineers are working to lessen. That group of researchers now includes three Rowland Hall students.
In fall 2021, Aiden Gandhi, Eli Hatton, and Evan Weinstein, then ninth graders, were hard at work choosing a science fair topic. They knew they worked well together (as middle schoolers, they had teamed up for the You Be the Chemist Challenge), and they were united in a common goal: to create a project that could qualify for the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world’s largest high school STEM competition and an opportunity the young scientists had been waiting to be eligible for. As upper schoolers, that wait was over, so the only question was: what topic did they want to tackle?
The team’s priority was to choose a project that balanced members’ individual interests in engineering and physics. They decided a project on sustainable aviation would meet that objective. The choice allowed each member to play to his strengths—a good strategy when aiming for ISEF-level research. Additionally, the team liked that an aviation project would let them address climate change.
“We had lots of ideas of different areas of science we wanted to work with,” remembered Eli, but the team’s priority was to choose one that balanced members’ individual interests in engineering and physics. After discussion, they decided a project on sustainable aviation would meet that objective. “It’s a blend of everything we’re interested in,” explained Aiden. The choice also allowed each member to play to his strengths—a good strategy when aiming for ISEF-level research. “We each have individual interests within aviation—physics, technical—which meant we had a pretty diverse background going in,” said Evan.
Additionally, the team liked that an aviation project would let them address climate change. Like their peers around the world, they’ve long been aware of environmental challenges facing their generation, and, as aviation enthusiasts, they’re also aware of the industry’s role in carbon emissions. And because flying isn’t going away, they explained, air travel needs to become more environmentally friendly and efficient. “If we can’t completely get rid of it, we can at least make it better,” said Evan.
The team first considered designing an entire sustainable aircraft—an idea they soon dismissed. “We realized that was far too complicated,” said Eli. Instead, they chose to focus on what Evan called the part that “makes airplanes more or less efficient”: the engine. An airplane’s engine, after all, is the source of its power—it’s where jet fuel is burned to provide the machine’s thrust (the force that moves an airplane in the air). But jet fuel is inefficient and the main contributor to an airplane’s carbon output: after fuel is burned inside the engine’s combustion chamber, it releases carbon waste into the atmosphere. However, it’s tricky to find a good substitute for jet fuel. Research has been done on other fuels, but many still release potentially harmful chemicals into the environment, and others are too volatile or expensive. And even ideas around electric aircraft have limited reach—the team found that current designs were only capable of short-distance flights. They wanted their experimental model to both eliminate the use of jet fuel and be available for international travel.
Goal in mind, the team set to work on a computer-aided design of an engine that creates propulsion via electrically heated tungsten coils in the combustion chamber. Tungsten, they explained, can efficiently heat and pressurize air, so they felt it was the right material choice. By February, the group was ready to present their project, named “Engine-ering the Future of Air Travel,” for the first time at a regional science fair, where they qualified for state—the step at which they would be considered for ISEF. They felt good about their odds: they placed second in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering division and fifth overall at the University of Utah Science and Engineering Fair, putting them in excellent position for an invitation to ISEF, which arrived a couple weeks after state.
“We were really happy we were invited,” remembered Aiden of the moment the group learned they had reached their goal.
But the team’s ISEF invitation wasn’t the end of the road—in fact, in many ways, the group had to work harder than ever to ramp up for international competition. They used the weeks leading to the May ISEF meeting to adjust their presentation to meet fair requirements and to tinker with their engine’s design. One major change the group made at this time was swapping the tungsten coils for tungsten fits, which, said Aiden, “have more surface area and would be better for transferring heat from the tungsten to the air throughout the engine.” They also began testing their model in ANSYS—engineering software that simulates airflow, thermal, and physical stress—to refine it. Additionally, as ISEF competitors, they had access to new resources, including local engineers Daniel Baxter and Duke Speer, who could provide feedback on their project to ensure it was ready for a higher level of scrutiny. And the team continued to seek support from Rowland Hall faculty. Robotics coach Alex Beaufort ’13 went over the mechanics of their engine, while physics teacher Robin Hori reviewed its physical properties and concepts to make sure they made sense theoretically. Their project mentor, science teacher Dr. Padmashree Rida, was invaluable to the group’s presentation practice. A former ISEF judge herself, Dr. Rida knew what they needed for the international competition, and she was impressed by what she saw.
What blew me away about this team of young scientists was their unflappable spirit, their ability to see around corners, the initiative they demonstrated by taking on a challenge that even industry experts have struggled with, and their motivation to continually innovate, iterate, and improve their original engine design.—Dr. Padmashree Rida, Upper School science teacher
“What blew me away about this team of young scientists was their unflappable spirit, their ability to see around corners, the initiative they demonstrated by taking on a challenge that even industry experts have struggled with, and their motivation to continually innovate, iterate, and improve their original engine design,” said Dr. Rida. “When they presented their poster to me for a practice session, I was amazed by how they had thought through every minute detail of their design, and how hard they had worked to research their problem inside out and to think of good responses to potential questions and critiques. They received feedback with heartwarming grace, showed inspiring tenacity and focus when faced with setbacks, and were deeply committed to their purpose: to do something about the pressing crisis of climate change.”
Robotics coach Alex echoed Dr. Rida’s sentiment, calling out the team’s impressive determination even when encountering hurdles just a week before competition—a promising characteristic of these future professional scientists and engineers. "They overcame obstacles with tenacity,” said Alex. “Even during the last week, when they encountered problems, they were able to adequately address them in a professional manner, approaching the solution with the scientific mindset that is ever evolving.”
These weeks of preparation were valuable, the team said, not only when it came to making their project more realistic, but also in helping them learn to better convey their ideas. By the time they headed to Atlanta in May, Aiden, Eli, and Evan were confident their updated engine could compare to today’s commercially used engines, and they were ready to present their work to some of the top engineering minds in the field. And though competition was high (the three Rowland Hall students were among 1,750 competitors from 49 US states and 63 countries, regions, and territories), what they remember most is the feeling of camaraderie among attendees—an essential component of their future careers.
“It’s important because you need more than one person to make a significant change in the world,” said Aiden. Evan added, “Not only are you making friends, but you’re also creating partnerships. Likely, these are the people you’ll be researching with at high levels.”
It’s safe to say that Rowland Hall’s jet engine crew would have been satisfied at this point: as ninth graders they had already made it to ISEF, they were mingling with innovative students from around the world, and they got to present their original research to engineering experts. But they soon learned their hard work had paid off in another exciting way. As attendees, the group was eligible for the event’s Grand Awards, prizes presented to the first- through fourth-place winners in each of ISEF’s 21 categories. (Top ISEF awards are then selected from the group of 21 First Award winners.) As the young scientists and engineers gathered on award night, the Rowland Hall team was thrilled to hear their names called over the loudspeaker—they were the Fourth Award winners in the Engineering Technology: Statics and Dynamics category, which had 81 total entries.
“We were very surprised and shocked and happy. It felt surreal,” remembered Eli. “We thought just making it there was our biggest achievement.”
These achievements won’t be wrapping up anytime soon. Now sophomores, Aiden, Eli, and Evan are still immersed in their jet engine research, currently choosing a 2023 science fair project that will build on last year’s work (details are still being kept quiet at this stage). With the benefit of their first ISEF experience, the team is excited to see what they can do next, and they’re quick to encourage other students to try science fairs themselves, noting how a Rowland Hall education, including excellent faculty support, prepares young scientists and engineers for these opportunities to take on real-world problems. “The resources at Rowland Hall are incredible,” said Aiden. “Faculty, our schoolwork, and papers and research in history, science, math—all that definitely prepared us for ISEF.”
Without a doubt, these students will continue to do incredible things, and the Rowland Hall community is looking forward to watching what they take on next. “I am super excited about the positive impact they will have, and the changes they will drive,” said Dr. Rida.