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Operation Catapult Introduces Students throughout the World to New Areas of Engineering & Science

July 29, 2011

In a lab coat, safety glasses and gloves, one might easily mistake Alesa Stallman for a professional scientist, hot on the trail of her latest ground-breaking discovery.  Holding up a test tube about the girth of a bratwurst, she eyes the green liquid inside.

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  Exploring News Interest Areas: Conducting wind tunnel tests during the July Operation Catapult session were (from left) Spencer Jackson, Chris Teufel, Alexa Hylas and Zack Rooker.

"This is dried algae and it is in water and methanol, and chloroform," she explains.  The chloroform attaches to the lipids in the solution, she adds, allowing the extraction of oils from the green mass.

However, Stallman isn't a professional scientist.  She's a high school student from Saratoga, Calif., who participated in Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Operation Catapult educational discovery program.   Now in its 45th year, the program enables high school students who have completed their junior year of high school to participate in hands-on engineering projects as they experience a slice of campus life.

"Their Operation Catapult project was to try to grow as much algae as they could in 10 days, while working within a set of parameters," explains Peter Coppinger, assistant professor of applied biology and biomedical engineering.  The students then extracted oils from the algae to create small amounts of biodiesel.

Stallman worked alongside Jeanette Lui of Monterey, Calif., and Kevin Kuo of Terre Haute, Ind., as one of four teams producing biodiesel for the second of two Operation Catapult sessions this summer (July 11-27).  There were 137 students from 30 states and Greece in the July session.

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Explaining Project: Kevin Kuo (right) passes along knowledge about biodiesel production onto an Operation Catapult colleague during the project demonstration that culminated the second session.   

Coppinger helped guide the students in the biodiesel projects through their experimentation and scientific discovery.

"What makes this project unique is that it combines biology, chemistry, and chemical engineering," he says.

Over the course of two and a half weeks, Operation Catapult participants work in teams to complete a challenging project.  Guided by Rose-Hulman faculty and technicians, the participants are encouraged to take on challenging projects that interest them, but which they don't have a great deal of current knowledge.  Besides bio-diesel, students had the opportunity to use a wind tunnel to study aerodynamics in race cars, explore variable star/asteroid photometry through telescopes at an observatory, create computer games and learned about embedded electronic control systems.

In addition to the hands-on projects, the students also attended lectures on engineering and scientific topics, and took field trips to Marathon Petroleum, Eli Lilly & Company, Toyota and Beckman Coulter manufacturing facilities.  Social activities led by Operation Catapult counselors, themselves Rose-Hulman students, rounded out the experience to give students a taste of campus life.

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  Documenting Discoveries: Alesa Stallman keeps track of the progress in a biodiesel project during Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's Operation Catapult program.

This summer's second session had an international flair with visitors from Huazhong University of Science and Technology's QiMing College in Wuhan, China observing the program in the hopes that a similar one can be developed in their own country.

"This kind of project is seldom seen in China," observes Jianqiang Li of Operation Catapult experience.  Li, like the other student members of the group, was embedded with a one of the project teams, observing and offering assistance to the students.   He worked with students on an entrepreneurship project in which they designed and produced acrylic key chains that were sold to other participants, parents and friends.

Li noted that the hands-on nature of the Operation Catapult projects was much different from the study methods used in his home country.

"I'm really interested in economics and management," Li says of choosing to work with the entrepreneurship group.

In an electrical and computer engineering laboratory, students worked on several embedded controls projects.  "I have much experience in ECE projects," QiMing's Cheng Xinyu explains of work with the student groups.  "We are familiar with electrical devices, and can help the students with their projects.  We help with programming because American high school students don't learn this in school," group member Song Yang adds.

"I'm surprised at the creativity of the American students," QiMing student Zhang Qi notes about the innovative spirit of Operation Catapult participants.  "American students are very energetic," he says, "they complete projects in such a short time."

Operation Catapult Director Patsy Brackin, professor of mechanical engineering, explains that working in groups means that the visiting high school students must learn to collaborate with one another.  "We really try to make sure that everybody works together and gets along."

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Successful Project: Isaac Gehman crosses a pond on the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology campus with a mechanical device that utilized a paddle to propel through the water.
 
       Making A Sale: Ronobir Mookherjee (middle) and Kaleb Blair collect money from a customer who had just purchased a key chain produced as part of an entrepreneurship project.
  

While students may compete during demonstration activities, such as hovercraft races, Brackin says the program's goal is to encourage students to work together to succeed.  "It really is collaborative and we expect the students to help other people out," she explains.

Brackin added that this summer's international collaboration further enhanced the educational value of the Operation Catapult experience.

View our Photo Album from Catapult July 2011.