How to Design the 'Best' Paper Airplane

Posted in: Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate

The H.M.S. Research in very low Earth orbit.
The 'H.M.S. Research' in Very Low Earth Orbit.

One of the reasons I was interested in doing a PhD in the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering at the University of Bath was the emphasis that the department and the university place on public engagement. Sharing research with the world and inspiring young people to pursue awesome projects in engineering and design is something I wanted to do more of!

One of the coolest such opportunities here at Bath is the University's link with the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution's (BRLSI) Young Researcher's Programme (YRP). At YRP, a group of current PhD students from the University of Bath act as mentors for a cohort of 14-16 year old young researchers who spend one full year developing an completely independent research project on a question of their choosing - a "mini-PhD."

Our role as mentors is to try to convey the research process and research skills, and to inspire and guide the intellectual development of the young researchers - we are not teachers!

The photo above shows what that mentorship actually looks like!

Last Saturday, the exercise we went through with the young researcher's was the design of the "best" paper airplane. Starting out as a very open ended design brief: "Design the 'best' paper airplane.", the exercise eventually guided the young researchers through the process of defining a precise research question - "What does 'best' mean anyway?"

As we quickly learned with the young researchers, however, even with a precise research question formulated, such as "How does wingspan and wing shape affect flight distance?," we needed to develop ways of measuring both our inputs and our results. We also needed to be clear about our independent and dependent variables, and the controls in our experiment. In about 30 minutes, (all the while witnessing the design of some pretty impressive paper airplanes!) we encountered and tackled many of the major challenges every scientist and researcher faces in planning and executing real-life research!

Although we certainly hope that the young researchers left the session on Saturday inspired, and with a better sense of how the research process works, we PhD students were actually amazed at how much we had learned as well! It's easy to forget the basic rules of the scientific method when faced with something as huge and abstract as a 3 or 4 year PhD thesis - I think each of us walked away from the day with a few more tools in our research kit, and a clarified sense of how to approach our own work.

If you do end up pursuing a PhD at the University of Bath, I highly recommend getting involved with the Young Researcher's Programme or one of the similar projects, such as Code Club, happening in the Bath area. You can also become a STEM ambassador, where you have the opportunity to inspire young people about STEM, share your work to excited and bright-eyed audiences, and just have a good time doing the fun parts of STEM!

Please note: the above image is copyright of the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Please do not reuse without permission.

Posted in: Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, Postgraduate

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