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Virtual aerospace camp—one camper shares her experience


Zoom screen shot of most of the students and leaders in the 2020 virtual camp
Zoom screen shot of most of the students and leaders in the 2020 virtual camp
During a typical summer, high-school students who are interested in aerospace attend a week-long Illinois Aerospace Institute on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. Rather than cancelling it due to the pandemic, the organizers seized the opportunity to develop a virtual version for 50 of the students who had enrolled to come in person.

Brian Woodard, who has served as director of the camp since 2011, along with AE’s outreach coordinator Diane Jeffers and six graduate students, worked together to modify the curriculum and host the Department of Aerospace Engineering camp.

“Our goal was to maintain the same high level of content while adapting the delivery to online only,” Woodard said. “In order for the students to build their own gliders and landers, we shipped everything they needed to them ahead of time—including the traditional camp T-shirt.”

Through lectures and demonstrations, the students learned about topics ranging from aerodynamics to composite materials to orbital mechanics.

“Ordinarily, we would have brought special speakers into the classroom, but because everything was online and distance wasn’t an issue, we were able to ‘bring in’ speakers from all over to give a presentation followed by a Q and A,” Woodard said. “I think it made us think out of the box about who those speakers might be. Consequently, we were able to introduce them to a wide range of recent and senior alumni.”

Alumni speakers throughout the week included:

  • Elias Waddington, BS ’17. He worked with drones for a couple of years before coming back to Illinois to work on a master’s degree l
    Elias Waddington describing past DBF competitions
    Elias Waddington describing past DBF competitions
    ast fall. Waddington shared some of his experiences as an undergrad with the student group Design Build Fly.
  • Jason Merret holds three of his degrees from Illinois, having earned his Ph.D. in 2004. He is now is a professor of practice in applied aerodynamics and vehicle design in the department. Merret shared some of his experience working over a decade at Gulfstream.
  • Cassandra Dickey, BS ’18, who is a flight controller in training at KBR.
  • Adi Boulos, BS ’08, has logged over 3,000 hours in the International Space Station’s Mission Control Room. Last year he was selected to be a part of the newest NASA flight director class.
  • Erik Antonsen also holds three degrees from U of I—his Ph.D. in 2004--as well as an M.D. from U of I at Chicago in 2009. He is the assistant director for NASA’s Human System Risk Management at the Johnson Space Center.

What else was different about virtual camp?

One of the graduate student camp leaders, Eric Alpine, said even although it wasn’t in person, most of the students shared their camera t
AE institute staff, top: Giusy Falcone, Director Brian Woodard, and Mateo Diaz; center: Branden Kirchner, Matthew Koll, and Eric Alpine; bottom: Rohit Gupta
AE institute staff, top: Giusy Falcone, Director Brian Woodard, and Mateo Diaz; center: Branden Kirchner, Matthew Koll, and Eric Alpine; bottom: Rohit Gupta
o interact, but those who chose not to had other ways to participate. “Some of the campers who were a little shy or were just afraid to ask questions could type their questions in the chat box. I got at least 10 good questions per day.”

Grad student Matthew Koll said he encountered some challenges when answering specific questions about the campers’ gliders. “I could hold up the pieces of the glider and demonstrate how to balance it, but sometimes the problem is in how they throw it.” Koll said it forced him to think of other creative ways to help them.

Click on this photo of Abby LeBar to watch the video of the test drop of the lander she designed and built during the week of camp
Click on this photo of Abby LeBar to watch the video of the test drop of the lander she designed and built during the week of camp
This year’s Illinois Aerospace Institute may have been virtual, but the campers' experiences were real. Abigail “Abby” LeBar will be a junior this fall at Glenwood High School. She joined the camp from her home in Chatham, Illinois. LeBar said she was disappointed to learn the camp would be all online, but actually enjoyed it. LeBar kept a journal for the week and shared some of her reflections.


We did standard introductions and learned what we would be talking about this week. They introduced two projects: a glider and a lander. It was really nice seeing everyone with their cameras on and being interactive. It was so nice to have a challenge too. Math has always been my favorite subject. Today, we were working on calculations for our glider project and it was difficult to understand at first, but after doing spring semester in high school online, I was excited to be doing something new. I talked to Brian Woodard, the camp director, during lunch a little bit. He was very nice to chat with and I can tell he’s happy we were able to do camp online.


Camp so far has been really successful! After today's presentation, I think I want to specialize in aerodynamics. We learned about rocket propulsion and calculating necessary velocity and thrust. We also learned the four forces of flight--lift, thrust, drag, and gravity—and how they affect the efficiency of an aircraft.

I really enjoy learning from past students. They have so much knowledge about the subject and are passionate about it. That could be me one day! We got to hear from two guest speakers as well. Both Jason Merret and Elias Waddington are involved with remote-controlled aircrafts. I got two RC planes from my grandfather and had no idea where to start. Dr. Merret gave me some resources and said he’d help me connect with others in my community.

I love the closeness in the engineering community. It's nice to be able to bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm. We do that at the end of every day. All of the campers and a few instructors stay in the large Zoom call so we can ask questions and work on our projects.

I'm having some trouble with my projects. I completed all of my calculations for my airplane but I haven't started building yet. I spent most of my time today working on my lander. We have a budget of $1.5 billion for our lander and each of the materials we received in our kit have a cost. For example, an inch of string is $7 million and that's the cheapest item we have!  I'm not complaining though. School has been out for about six months there's been nothing to challenge me.


Today we played team trivia so I got the chance to interact with some of my peers. One of them was all the way from New York! I live in Illinois and I’m very familiar with U of I so it’s interesting to see people from all over the nation and even the world--we have three international students. The trivia was about how well we could remember the information we heard in presentations from our grad student instructors. My team got third but we had a lot of fun.

We also studied computer-aided design. We logged into the university computers and used a CAD program to make sketches and even 3D designs. I didn’t latch on as well as some other students but I’m not super good at computers. I’ll have to work on that. The instructors were helpful and patient with me, though.

I spent all of the work time we had today plus two more hours tonight working on my glider and lander projects. I actually made a successful-ish lander! I used coffee filters, string, the cup, and the bubble wrap to secure my egg-stronaut. I dropped mine from 10 feet and it landed on my marker but it did not land face up. I was just happy it worked.

I redid all the calculations for my glider because I realized I had used the wrong value for one and messed it all up. I calculated the surface area, length of root chords and tip chords (which are vertical distances on the wing), and selected a span that would give me that is within the range values I was provided by the instructors.

Click on this photo of Abby LeBar for a video of the test flight of the glider she designed and built during virtual camp.
Click on this photo of Abby LeBar for a video of the test flight of the glider she designed and built during virtual camp.
I got my plane built, and I went into my backyard to practice flying it by taking a rubber band and attaching my wing to find the center of gravity. You don’t want your wing too far forward or your plane will nosedive. But you don’t want it to far back or your plane will go straight up. After about 10 tries, I got my wings in just the right place. I’m letting the wings dry overnight, because I’m using wood glue, which is strong but takes longer to dry. Tomorrow I have to make my rubber band connector to provide my plane with lots of thrust.

I genuinely want to do well on my projects and impress my instructors. I mean, there are awards at the end of the week, so there's a bit of an incentive. Maybe I'll shoot for the best design. We shall see!


I’m sad to see the week winding down to an end. I communicated with my peers a lot more today and I just know I would’ve had so much more fun in person. I completely understand why we couldn't this year, which means I’ll just have to sign up next year! We worked in groups toward the end of the day to make calculations for an optimal aircraft design to reach less than or equal to 1,500 feet. Our group achieved the farthest distance calculation. It was nice to make a collaborative effort even if all of us are apart. One of the kids in my group was an international student and it was 2 a.m. for him! We heard from some guest speakers today too. We got to hear from the Illinois Space Society about their program and the activities they do. They build rockets and have multiple hangouts throughout the year. I would love to be part of it.

I really enjoyed playing Kerbal. It’s a game where you can build spaceships, launch them, test the altitudes, and learn how the designs differ. We were given a prompt to build one using certain parts so we could practice launching. We didn’t have too much time to build our own, but I would love to get back on during my own time and play. I turned in all my assignments and my glider went 58 feet! I was so excited to see my hard work pay off.


I was back and forth between major choices before camp. I either wanted to be an aerospace engineer or an architect. I had taken a drafting class this past semester and thought that might be nice. This camp has really reaffirmed that aerospace is what I want to do with my life. I was sad to not be able to get to know my peers better, and I was sad to say goodbye to them and my instructors. I would absolutely love to attend the camp next year. I didn’t win any of the awards, but now I know what I can do to improve myself and my designs in the future. I was very happy to see how much time and effort the camp leaders contributed to create this camp even though we couldn’t be there in person. Previously I had been looking at various out-of-state schools, but now I know U of I is a very good option for me.