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Yankee Ridge After-School Program Takes Off Under Guidance of Illinois Aerospace Engineering Students

November 27, 2017


A student prepares her parachute for launch at IAO's After School Enrichment Program at Yankee Ridge Elementary School

Know what thrust is? Lift? How about Drag? A group of 15 or so students at Yankee Ridge Elementary School now know a bit more about these forces that keep aircraft aloft, thanks to several Illinois students in Aerospace Engineering. For four Wednesdays in a row (from October 18th through November 8th), these members of Illini Aerospace Outreach dropped by the After-School Enrichment Program at Yankee Ridge to impart some of their knowledge about flight to the students.

Illinois Aerospace student
An IAO member instructs Yankee Ridge students on Aircraft Components

In each of the four weeks, the excited K–5th grade students did a hands-on activity during which they built a different machine (week one: a glider; week two: a helicopter; week three: a parachute; and week four: a wind turbine) while also learning a bit about the forces (thrust, lift, drag, and weight [gravity + mass]) that act upon these objects, causing them to fly—or, crash (let's face it, these are elementary students)—or in the case of the turbine, to turn and create energy.

Then, each week, after the youngsters had designed and built their projects, the Illinois students hooked up some box fans so the kids could test their designs to see how well they worked. The young participants then had the option of making some slight adjustments, then testing their project again, if time permitted. For instance, in the wind turbine activity on the last Wednesday, some of the modifications, other than completely designing a new shape of blade, were to respace the blades or to modify the angle of the blades in order to encounter more wind resistance.


A Yankee Ridge student prepares his parachute for launch

Helping to teach the students some aeronautical engineering principles was Jenna Commisso, a junior in aerospace, whose dream job is to be an astronaut. Commisso volunteered to be involved in the Yankee Ridge outreach because she was very involved in the community at her old college, and when she transferred to Illinois, she wanted to get involved in this community as well.

“I think it's nice to have that sense of community while also getting the kids engaged in aerospace-related topics,” she explains, then adds, “It's really awesome that they have this resource of the university.”

While she indicates that it was hard to explain some of the topics she was trying to convey to youngsters at so young of an age, she says that at times during the hour-long outreach, she’d been pleasantly surprised.

“If I said something,” she explains, “there were some of them that were like, ‘Yep! That's it!’ They know a lot of information, and it's really cool that they know this much at this age.”


Jenna Commisso demonstrates to students how to build a glider.

Regarding the benefit of doing a program like this with young students, Commisso says one positive impact is that they’re being exposed to role models like herself and the other Illinois students.

“It's really important that they see people that they look up to doing these things,” she stresses. “That way they know it's within reach.”

She also believes that it’s never too early to introduce kids to the idea that they, too can go to college.

“Even at this age, that can be a goal, like going to college. That's something they see, and they can have that in their head while they're going through school.”

Regarding the impact the outreach had on her, personally, Commisso says, “This was a great opportunity, really fun, and I loved doing it.”


A Yankee Ridge student in the works of creating a helicopter.

According to Alexis Jones, the Coordinator of the Yankee Ridge’s After-School Enrichment Program who organized the aerospace event, the kinds of things they're trying to include for enrichment are activities that might be “related to school, but they're not things they'll get during the regular school day,” adding that they intentionally chose this topic because it was related to engineering. “There are kids in the classroom who are really interested in how things work and why things work certain ways.”

“The more STEM things we can get, the better,” she adds, acknowledging that they also do non-STEM activities as well.

Jones adds that in her role as coordinator, she tried to reach out to a lot of the university organizations that do outreach, and anyone that tries to do work in schools.

Commisso watches on as a group of students test their helicopter.

“The schools have work for them to do that the kids get really excited about,” she explains, adding that, “Aerospace was one of the most popular classes this semester, and it had to turn down kids.”

(Sadly, this reporter was quite aware of this. One of my grandsons, who says he wants to be an engineer, was one of the kids who got turned down. Happily, my other grandson got in.)

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.

More: K-6 Outreach, Aerospace Engineering, 2017

For additional I-STEM web articles about Illinois' Aerospace outreach, see: