George Lucas Educational Foundation

Engineering Success: Students Build Understanding

When long-term projects form the backbone of the curriculum, learning takes off at Seattle's Aviation High School.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Scott McComb, Teacher: The project is too big for you to do by yourself. And so you're going to be working with people in your group from now through March.

Narrator: Science teacher, Scott McComb is rolling out a new project for his freshman class at Seattle's Aviation High School.

Scott McComb, Teacher: You might be saying to yourself at this point, "Oh, great. We're going to build a wing. We're going to break it. We're going to build another wing, we're going to break it. We're going to build another wing, we're going to break it. Whoa, gee. That sounds like so much fun." But in fact, it is fun. And let me tell you why. Because...

Narrator: The goal is to introduce students to the joys and challenges of real-world engineering.

Scott McComb, Teacher: 'Oh, a bending moment diagram! Oh, okay. I'm a reasonably smart person. I can figure that out. Sure, all right. A little first derivative, a little calculus. Okay, that's pretty good. All right. Ooh, okay! I'm-- oh, my! Oh, my. Uh-oh. Whoa, friends!' Okay, engineering is fun. And engineering is hard. Or hard from the outside looking in. But once we get the hang of this [snaps], it's going to go like this.

Narrator: To get the hang of engineering, students will work in teams of three for the next six months, competing to design a highly efficient lightweight wing structure made of paper mâché. Located in the heart of Seattle's sprawling aircraft design and construction industry, Aviation High School is a small science and math magnet that is open to any student with a passion for aviation. And it is dedicated to the practice of project-based learning.

Boy 1: Ha-ha! Residents of the Duwamish, prepare to suffer!

Boy 2: Oh, no! It's the blue attack!

Narrator: In Environmental Science Class, students write and perform plays to promote conservation.

Girl 1: So our transit line, it's going to start over here at SeaTac, and it's going to go all the way down to White Center.

Narrator: In math, they redesign Seattle's Public Transport System.

Boy 3: It's going to break-- it's going to bend.

Narrator: And in McComb's science classroom, they learn how to build and break things.

Boy 4: Light ones. Ah, dude!

Hayley McJunkin, Student: I like doing hands-on projects more, just because I feel I learn better by learning from my own experiences. When we were doing the wing project, I learned from our experiences. Like our first wing was really bad. And then our third wing, we did really well.

Hayley McJunkin, Student: [speaking to classmates] Oh! I'm so proud of us!

Scott McComb, Teacher: [speaking to students] You should be!

Narrator: The wing project grew out of a series of summer meetings facilitated by Project-Based Learning Coach, Eva Reiter.

Eva Reiter: [speaking to teachers and engineer] We need to go backwards from those big ideas and identify, "What's the breakdown, the skills?"

Narrator: Reiter recruited structural engineer, Doug Gross, who volunteered his time as subject matter expert on the project.

Doug Gross, Structural Engineer: [speaking to teachers] You can't just put pressure on a wing, ’cause it's just about impossible. So what we do is we put loads on it in enough locations to give the same force distribution as you have in the flying vehicle.

Doug Gross, Structural Engineer: You know, I started thinking about it, and my mind kind of just goes into all the things that people ought to know. Of course, I'm looking at it from the perspective of somebody who's been doing it for 15 years.

Eva Reiter: [speaking to teachers and engineer] You're talking about something that presupposes calculus and a lot of years of physics, etcetera. Now, we're talking about how do you take this project and break it down so freshmen can do that.

Doug Gross, Structural Engineer: So I just take a step back, and Eva helps me to say, "Well, you know, we can't do the universe," so we just grab the fundamental things that the students can understand.

Scott McComb, Teacher: And so what I'm passing out now, this is a tentative timeline. "Tentative" meaning, of course, it's subject to change.

Scott McComb, Teacher: If there's not buy-in from the students from the start, what you've suddenly committed to is three months or six months of, "Now I'm going to torture you with this project, which you're not interested in." So that's challenge number one.

Scott McComb, Teacher: November 17th, we will design the wing. December 1st, we will build the wing.

Scott McComb, Teacher: Challenge number two is finding a way to make it authentic. Whose working on this in real life? Why are we spending our time with this?

Doug Gross, Structural Engineer: [speaking to class] Now our project that we're going to work on here is not the aerodynamics of a wing, it's the structural performance of a wing. We do this is the real world, too. And it's very cool, and I'm hoping to show you how cool it is.

Scott McComb, Teacher: Third, is to introduce an element of challenge. To make students say, "Wait a minute. There is a reason for me to get better at what I'm doing.

Scott McComb, Teacher: On March 24th, you're going to stand in front of your peers, you're going to stand in front of your parents, you're going to stand in front of a panel of engineers, and you're going to say, "Here's our wing design. This is the one we recommend. And here's why." You will have data. You will have graphs. You will have a clear presentation with clear roles. And you're going to knock the socks off people.

Narrator: As a first step, students had to select two classmates to work with on the project.

Scott McComb, Teacher: I want to remind you, here's your chance to not work with your friend, and not hurt their feelings. If you have a special someone, a little heartthrob in this classroom, don't work with them either. It's a disaster.

Narrator: After selecting teammates, each student signed an agreement, detailing their individual responsibilities to the group.

Boy 4: How will we share our work, and track our progress as a team?

Boy 5: Maybe like a check-off sheet or something like that.

Narrator: As the project progressed, teams designed, built and tested various wing structures.

Boy 6: It's quite an improvement for us. Remember our first wing didn't even hold water.

Scott McComb, Teacher: Many people have an idea of engineering and science as being inaccessible, and it's like, "Oh, no! I can't do that! I don't know how! It's too big. It requires too much math." When, in fact, it's about diligence. It's about good observations, it's about good teamwork. And these are skills which anybody can do.

Girl 3: No serious signs of stress.

Boy 7: Try the book instead.

Narrator: Each round of testing provided useful information for students...

Boy 8: We think our last one would have done better, but this one, it was lighter, so the efficiency's probably going to be higher.

Narrator: ...and teachers.

Scott McComb, Teacher: I remember after the first round of testing, we said, "Well, it looks like we need to improve on quality control." And so we cut back the number of wings to be tested per group every round. We made a long list of variables we were going to control. We made a long list of data we need to make sure we collect. And we figured out the importance of it, including a screen in the background so we could measure deflection more accurately. We learned the importance of going from videotape to still shots, so we could quickly analyze the data, and so forth.

Hayley McJunkin, Student: Well, that's doing good. Better than our last one.

Scott McComb, Teacher: So the second round was a much smoother test, and the third round even more so.

Narrator: During the final round of testing, several local aeronautical engineers came to school to assist in analyzing the results.

Engineer 2: It kind of looks like you fill this main section right here, and this will...

Narrator: The data an observations from these tests would be included in a final presentation each team would give to these same engineers.

Engineer 3: Right.

Narrator: On Presentation Day, McComb, assisted with Wardrobe adjustments and coached his class on public speaking techniques.

Scott McComb, Teacher: [speaking to class] Brian, you said that you had a suggestion?

Brian: Be positive about your other teammates. Don't try and bring somebody down, because it just looks bad.

Narrator: Armed with their test results and design files, the students set off to impress the engineers.

Boy 9: Our task for this project was to create a high-efficiency, low-weight wing that when tested, it would show the values you'd want for a real wing.

Boy 10: You can see that the design started off as basically a pretty simple design.

Boy 11: And here's two of our wings. This one is just a shell.

Mike Bonfitz, Engineer: These kids, the way they present themselves, they're articulate, they know what they're about. They know what they've learned. They've obviously been able to work together. In a situation like this for ninth graders to pull off something like that is absolutely remarkable.

Boy 6: And here's our data for our wings. This would be the first round would be one, two and three. Then four, five and six.

Thom Markham, Assoc. Director: Anytime students get in front of adults, their performance usually gets a lot better, because like anyone else, they want to look good in front of an audience.

Boy 12: This is our final wing design that we made. It's already been tested.

Narrator: The engineer's score on final presentations was just one of many factors that went into a student's grade for the class.

Scott McComb, Teacher: You remember the survey that you filled out. I had a chance to tabulate those results. And...

Narrator: They were also graded on their efforts by their teammates. And on the last day of the semester, they had a chance to express their opinions about the value of the project. And they were overwhelmingly positive.

Boy 11: I'm going to say that it's a lot better to learn something on your own than it is to have a teacher tell you it. Because if a teacher tells you it, you might remember it two weeks later; but if you learn it yourself, you're going to remember it for pretty much the rest of your life.

Scott McComb, Teacher: You'll remember how you learned it.

Boy 11: Yeah.

Thom Markham, Assoc. Director: One of the best findings in educational research is reflection is equated with retention. That is, when you think about what you've done, and you think about what you learned, it's much more likely to stay with you.

Girl 4: I'm glad that you didn't give us a lot of information, ’cause it kind of us led us to have to think of stuff on our own. And you know, when someone teaches you something, there's this little part of you that's like, "Well, but maybe this could work better." So if you do it yourself, it's like you can prove to yourself what works and what doesn't.

Scott McComb, Teacher: As I look back on the project, in terms of teamwork, in terms of data collection, in terms of excitement about learning, gosh, they exceeded all expectations. To have a student say, "I want to do another," is a rare and wonderful thing.

Team of boys: Oh, no! Oh, boy!

Narrator 2: For more information on what works in public education, go to

Scott McComb, Teacher: Nice wing, fellahs! Nicely done! Yeah!

Get Video
Embed Code Embed Help

You are welcome to embed this video, download it for personal use, or use it in a presentation for a conference, class, workshop, or free online course, so long as a prominent credit or link back to Edutopia is included. If you'd like more detailed information about Edutopia's allowed usages, please see the Licenses section of our Terms of Use.


Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producers:

  • Stacy Bloom
  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Rob Weller
  • Kirk Miller
  • Michael Curtiss
  • Jeff Hoien
  • Nick Kolias
  • Stacy Bloom
  • Ken Ellis


  • Kris Welch

Original Music:

  • Ed Bogas

Additional Footage Courtesy of

  • The Boeing Company

Editor's Note: In fall of 2013, Aviation High School moved into a new campus and changed its name to Raisbeck Aviation High School. Founding principal and CEO Reba Gilman moved on and assistant principal Bruce Kelly became Principal/CEO in the fall of 2014, as the school celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Aviation High School, in Seattle, Washington, is described as "the premier public high school of choice for students ... who wish to pursue their passion for aviation and aerospace in a learning environment that prepares them for higher education, citizenship, and work." Read more about Aviation High School in the article by former principal Reba Gilman, "Going Sky High: Students Take Learning to New Levels."

The six PDFs linked below will be of interest to those looking for more detailed information about the Wing Strength Design Project and to anyone interested in the specifics of implementing project-based learning, regardless of the subject focus.

Teaching Tools

Design File Checklist (174KB)

Engineers' Scoring Guide (921KB)

Wing Strength Design Evaluation Form (149KB)

Student Final Survey Results (539KB)

Sample Student Work

Final Wing Design File 1 (1MB)

Final Wing Design File 2 (921KB)

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Linda Jungwirth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm trying to show the videos, and all I get is audio. I've used these videos numerous times in the past, and had no difficulty. Help. I'd like to use with a group of students on Friday. Thanks. lj

Stuart's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great idea for a school. I wish we had one locally!

miranda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Im a Freshman this year at Aviation this year, Mr. McComb is the best science teacher i have ever had,and this really was a great project,



Carlos M.S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, great! Great! It's really a great work. I do believe that PjBL is a key method to work with as well... Thanks, from Canary Islands, SPAIN.
By the way, could you send me a copy of your Team Operating Agreement? It looks very interesting.
My email:

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Staff comment:

Hello, Carlos,

While we don't have a copy of the Team Operating Agreement available, I thought it might be of interest to you that we do have some other PDF downloads related to the project.

You could try contacting Aviation High School directly to see if they'd have a copy of the Team Operating Agreement; teacher Scott McComb's email is available on the school's Web site.

Good luck with your projects!



Amy Erin Borovoy

Coordinating Video Producer

Donna D. Daria's picture
Donna D. Daria
Subsutitue teacher,Graduate Student on line.

I really enjoyed wathcing students learn on their own. It is exciting to see them come up with their own inventions and idea! This has helped me to come to come up with my own inventions for second graders! Thanks a bunch!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.