NORMAN — On Thursday afternoon in a University of Oklahoma workshop, Carly Young and her teammates were making final adjustments to a remote-controlled plane they'd built from scratch.
About 30 feet away, another team worked on an off-road vehicle. All around the two teams were bits and pieces of two other vehicles — a race car and a recumbent bicycle — built by other OU student teams.
The teams are a part of OU's School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. Young's team is gearing up for Design/Build/Fly, a national collegiate aviation competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. This year's competition will be April 13-15 in Wichita, Kan.
The other three teams — Sooner Off-Road, Sooner Powered Vehicle and Sooner Racing — all compete in national and international tournaments in their categories. In each contest, teams receive contest requirements months in advance and build vehicles that meet those parameters.
The teams then head to the annual competition where their vehicles compete with those built by other college teams from around the world.
Those requirements change from year to year, meaning each vehicle is unique from one year to the next. For example, Young said, this year's plane is built to carry a payload of eight aluminum bars. Last year, the contest required the planes be able to break down and fit into a piece of standard carry-on luggage.
Young said preparing for the competition is a valuable learning experience. She tends to learn best when she's working with her hands, she said, and the competition affords her that opportunity.
“This is as good as it gets when it comes to aerospace,” she said.
Chase Knowles, one of Young's teammates, said the program allows the team to take what they've learned in class and work on it in greater depth than they would normally be able to. Teams spend most of their waking hours in the workshop, he said — even more than they spend at home.
“We pretty much live in here,” he said. “If we're not in class, we're here.”
That level of depth is a part of the reason for the teams, said Farrokh Mistree, director of the school. It's important for students to learn through doing, he said, both in the sense of making a physical object and also analyzing the systems that make it work.
Working on the projects helps students who learn well in a classroom setting put their knowledge into practice. Likewise, he said, it helps more tactile learners to tie what they learn in the workshop back into classroom theory.
“This has been part of our culture,” he said.
Even within that culture, each individual team sees its own brand of participant, said Sarah Warren, a spokeswoman for the school. Sooner Powered Vehicle tends to attract people interested in cycling, she said, while Sooner Off-Road draws more rough-and-tumble members who like to get muddy.
“There's really kind of a niche for anybody,” she said.
OU's teams have had a fair amount of success in recent years, Mistree said. Several years ago, Sooner Racing developed a component that's designed to improve traction. Other teams soon copied the idea, he said.
Although the teams tend to be competitive, Mistree said he sees value in the competition no matter how the students fare. His message to the teams reflects that idea, he said:
“I'm delighted to support this as long as learning takes place and you have fun.”