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"Not only did we get to be more experienced working with the materials to build the airplanes, but the best lessons I got were how to build the team and organize labor to most efficiently meet the deadlines."

High Flyers

For the past few years, the 20-foot-long Pteranodon suspended from the ceiling of the Science Center's Great Hall has been flying solo. No longer. Jumping ahead a few millennia, the latest addition to the atrium is a plane.

So why a plane? Last fall Alexander Rurka '17 was looking to participate in an engineering competition. A Google search landed on the Cessna/Raytheon Missile Systems Student Design/Build/Fly competition organized by the American Institute Of Aeronautics and Astronautics Foundation. "This one seemed to be the best in terms of its professional affiliations, the number of competitors and level of organization," said Rurka.

Although Rurka headed up the project, about 15 to 20 students participated, each with different levels of involvement. "The General Flyers club, created to satisfy one of the competition requirements, is composed primarily of physics-engineering majors," he said. "However, we did have a number of first-years who were undecided." The group designed and fabricated an unmanned, electric-powered, radio-controlled aircraft to best meet the competition's specified mission profile.

The rules were complex, and involved scoring the aircraft on a number of criteria. "The ultimate goal was to design and build two aircraft," explained Rurka. "One airplane, the production airplane, had to be able to fly a 32-fluid-ounce Gatorade bottle around a race course. The second plane, the manufacturing airplane, had to be able to transport the production aircraft. The idea was to simulate the logistical processes airplane manufacturers go through when deciding how to build and deliver an airplane to a client. Do you ship the plane in a lot of small pieces or a few big pieces? We had to design the production airplane to meet some criteria and the transport aircraft to most efficiently ship the production airplane."

Joel Kuehner, chair of the Physics-Engineering Department, is beyond delighted not only with how the project turned out, but also with what students learned during the building process. "Alexander was really the main force behind the build," said Kuehner. "My role was to stand back and cheerlead. Over the past couple of years, he had built some radio-controlled aircraft, and came back last fall wanting to build a more involved project. He had all the expertise and brought the students together. He plans to enter another design-build-fly competition this academic year, and now he has a tangible, physical object to show students who are interested in joining the group."

"Designing the airplanes wasn't too hard," Rurka said. "But building the production aircraft proved to be a large undertaking. These planes are big and require a lot of labor. One of our biggest challenges was meeting the competition's deadlines (there are certain stages over the course of the year) while also having to meet school and athletic obligations."

Many of the parts were ordered over the internet, but others were fabricated in W&L's IQ Center. "The most expensive components are the motors, the servos to control the flaps and the radio transmitter," said Kuehner. "But all in all, the cost was less than $1,000. For the actual build, Alexander was the main person who knew how to construct the aircraft, so he taught many of the other members. They used the 3-D printers to create molds that they could shape the carbon fiber in. Without access to the IQ Center, they would have had to sand the pieces into the shape they wanted, which is dangerous and time-consuming."

Rurka summed up the project's rewards. "We learned a ton. Not only did we get to be more experienced working with the materials to build the airplanes, but the best lessons I got were how to build the team and organize labor to most efficiently meet the deadlines. I would say that other students learned a lot about the manufacturing process for a large project. These lessons can apply to many other disciplines of engineering."

by Louise Uffelman |

Tradition of Innovation

Washington and Lee occupies a unique position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age.

In Action People and Programs

Washington and Lee occupies a special position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age. Strong international and interdisciplinary programs address some of our most challenging contemporary questions, while our professional programs in law, business, journalism and entrepreneurship shape campus conversations in ways that do not occur in other liberal arts colleges. These professional programs benefit because they exist in a liberal arts setting, and our liberal arts programs benefit because they exist alongside areas of inquiry attuned to the problems facing our society.

Our commitment to innovation extends beyond our academic programs to our academic calendar, which features two 12-week terms and one 4-week Spring Term. This short semester at the end of the year allows students to focus their energies on one discipline and, often, to study abroad. With small class sizes, students in these Spring Term classes often work in the field, studying everything from plants to salamanders to stars. Students craving an artistic opportunity can make and produce music videos or learn the finer points of poetry. And these are only a few of the courses.

Co-curricular programs like the Rockbridge Report, the AdLib Conference, the Entrepreneurship Summit and the Williams Investment Society emphasize the link between the professional world and the liberal arts, effectively demonstrating the myriad ways students can use their liberal arts education after graduation. Facilities like the new IQ Center and the Center for Global Learning offer state-of-the-art technology that allows undergraduates to interact with professors-and the world-in new and exciting ways.

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At a Glance Facts and Figures

W&L's calendar features two 12-week terms followed by the innovative 4-week spring term.
44 Johnson Scholarships awarded annually.
5 Million Plus: the value of the stock portfolio managed entirely by students as part of the Williams Investment Society.
190 new courses created by W&L faculty for the innovative 4-week Spring Term.
W&L broke ground on the $13.5 million Center for Global Learning in 2014.

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Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students' capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.