Freshmen mentor Real World Design Challenge teams

Richard Wlezien, professor and chair of aerospace engineering, is ramping up an effort to get more students from the state of Iowa involved in the Real World Design Challenge, a program started in 2008 to get younger students engaged in solving real problems facing the engineering world today.

Last year, though three Iowa teams started the challenge, none were able to finish and go on to the finals in Washington D.C., so Iowa was not represented at the national conference. This year, Iowa State’s College of Engineering aims to help change that.

By bringing in “near-peer” mentors from Iowa State, and building some key partnerships with educational groups like Gear-Up Iowa, Wlezien hopes to get at least seven teams actively engaged across the state.

This year’s challenge is in the area of aerospace engineering, though the exact details won’t be released until October 4.

Through the combined efforts of the education system, government agencies, independent corporations, and non-profit agencies, teams of three to seven high school students will work on engineering a solution to the challenge with the help of professional training and software, as well as a teacher and mentors. Teams go on to present their solution in state-wide semifinal Governor’s Cups, and the winners make an all-expenses-paid journey to the national competition in Washington, DC.

Wlezien wants college students serving as mentors for the teams, as this is an opportunity both to get involved in the challenge and to get high school students excited about engineering. “No other state in the nation is getting college students involved,” he said. He is particularly interested in having newer Iowa State students at the freshmen and sophomore level get involved as the mentors. “Freshmen and sophomore college students, who were high school students not so long ago themselves, may be able to offer insight into the struggles these younger students will face, having recently started learning the same lessons,” Wlezien said.

Those Iowa State students who attended an informational meeting on September 13 are looking forward to being paired with a team. In their role, they will be cheering on a high school team throughout the challenge, answering general questions, and/or guiding teams to members of Iowa State faculty who can answer questions.

These volunteers will participate in training and learn about the software the high school students will use, and the mentor of the team that takes first place at the semifinals will be sponsored to go to Washington.

The Real World Design Challenge kickoff took place September 24, at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines. There were speakers, a tour of the museum, and software training for the Iowa teams.