F R E S H M A N   S E M I N A R S

Martinelli combines engineering and history to make course fly

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Luigi Martinelli has never given a freshman seminar before, but that's not the only reason why the big question in his mind is "Will it fly?"

The question is quite literal because his seminar, "From the Wright Flyer to the Spitfire: History and Technology of Flight," will culminate with the class trying to make a radio-controlled airplane from scratch and fly it.

Luigi Martinelli

Luigi Martinelli, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, is teaching a freshman seminar on the first 30 years of aviation. Here, he holds two model wings that the students had tested in a wind tunnel during one of the course's labs.

Part of Martinelli's course is a classroom component that explores a mix of history and technology surrounding the first 30 years of aviation. The rest is lab work that gives students a hands-on understanding of lift, drag, propulsion and the strength of materials. The two parts will come together in the final weeks when students try to create a model of an Italian airplane that set the speed record for a seaplane in 1934 and still holds it.

The catch is that Martinelli, an associate professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering, has no kit for this airplane. He spent a good deal of time last summer estimating its dimensions and specifications from historical records and photos, but has not built one himself.

"It's a great way of doing engineering -- taking risks," Martinelli told students after a recent class session. "Even if it doesn't work, we'll learn a lot."

Freshman Rachel Jrade, who anticipates majoring in the humanities and confesses a dislike of flying, said this learn-on-the-go approach is making the course a lot of fun. Even in the initial labs, the class ran into interesting challenges such as epoxy that did not harden as expected. "We've definitely had a couple of mishaps, but we've always gotten a chance to learn from them," she said.

Focusing on practical issues and experimentation rather than textbooks and the purely mathematical aspects of flying is "kind of in the same vein as how the Wright brothers learned to fly," Jrade said. She also had a new appreciation of airplanes as she flew home to Nashville for fall break and watched the wing from her window seat.

Martinelli nurtures that appreciation by showing how many features of modern aircraft have their roots in innovations made during the first 30 years of aviation. Many early advances grew out of the military demands of World War I as well as vigorous rivalries between participants in international flying competitions, he said.

In a recent class, Martinelli introduced students to the warplanes of "Snoopy and the Red Baron" -- the British Sopwith Camel and the German Fokker DR1 -- showing how engineers of the two countries approached the same problems in different ways. Political and economic factors often influenced the pace of development as much as the technical issues of wing shape and horsepower.

"Engineering does not happen in a vacuum," he said, noting that he wants students to view engineering as a link between many areas of science and society. "There is a lot of misunderstanding in society of what engineering is all about," he said. "Engineering is, by nature, cross-disciplinary. It is a creative process."

By early December, Martinelli and his students hope to see that creativity pay off as their model seaplane takes off from the cold waters of Lake Carnegie.