Undergraduate senior project takes flight

Cornell Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering student, Anton Volkmann, has sealed his place in the rich history of walkalong gliding.

Cornell Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering student, Anton Volkmann, has sealed his place in the rich history of walkalong gliding.  Described as “the paper airplane that keeps on flying,” you launch one of these gliders by hand, then keep it aloft on a wave of air that you create by walking. First invented in 1950, they weren’t publicized until featured on PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda in 2001. They are still little-known outside of a small, but growing group of progressive educators and aeronautic enthusiasts.

Xraise, the education team for CHESS, has been using these gliders—made by retired STEM educator Slater Harrison (www.sciencetoymaker.org)—to increase engagement and build interest in materials science, especially as it applies to aerospace applications.  With our new emphasis on developing career skills for our students, we seized on the convergence of Anton needing a meaningful “real world” senior engineering project and Slater’s desire to phase out production of gliders in his living room at home.

Slater, an expert in the use of synthetic polymers for optimizing strength-to-weight ratio in airfoils, has played a central role in some of the workshops hosted by Xraise the past few years. He enthusiastically agreed to coach Anton on designing a two-axis Computer Numerical Control foam cutter. This machine will enable the production of hundreds of thousands of gliders to be used in kits for science teachers.

Walkalong gliding requires a very lightweight rigid material. The density of polystyrene used in packaging can be as low as only five times the density of the air we breathe. When this material is sliced to .022 inches thick, it is perfect for walkalong gliding.

Last spring, Anton traveled to Williamsport, PA to gain insight from Slater’s extensive research and development, agree on product specifications, take measurements of Slater’s existing machine, and discuss a design that would increase production from 15,000 slices per year to 150,000.  After creating a CAD model and completing his requirements for graduation, we sent Anton’s design to James Herman, a Philadelphia-area retired engineer who offered free time and materials to construct a working prototype.

The machine, completed in the fall, was transported to Ithaca at the beginning of the new year.  Anton, now in the thick of graduate school, has allowed other collaborators to take over the project, including Tompkins Community College student Gabriel Gaydos, Ithaca Generator board member Greg Armstrong, and Free Science teen intern DeKwan Perry.  The first slice was cut weeks ago, and production is finally beginning thanks to mentoring from CHESS Research Support Specialist, Eric Edwards, who taught the team invaluable tricks of G-code and how to calibrate the machine.

Always optimizing the influence of our projects to include broader impact beyond the target beneficiary, our education team is delighted that Anton’s project has acquired a life of its own and that it will continue to promote science for the next generation.