Translating passion into progress
It is not often that a student on summer vacation gets to troubleshoot and solve a problem that NASA engineers have been struggling with.
But for Dylan Nguyen, a West Linn High School freshman, that is exactly what he did this summer because of his middle school STEM project.
What started out with a passion as a kite performer, doing aerial tricks set to music with kites during festivals around the area since 2015, took an ingenuitive turn into engineering one day on the beach while competing at the Washington State International Kite Festival, when Nguyen's battery kept dying.
"I'd be streaming music all day and I was maybe a mile out from anywhere with power because the festival is all along the beach, so I had to walk back to my car, get everything charged and I had to sit there for awhile, then walk back out," he said. "So I'd walk about five miles a day just trying to get everything charged."
All that walking sparked the idea that maybe he could create a portable power source that could be powered by flying a kite.
"During school, I learned about the lack of power that there is in places like Africa and India because they don't have established power grids and I thought, 'What if I make something that's very affordable and lightweight, very small, and could be easy to use so that it could deploy quickly, so that you could use power without needing to establish a huge power grid?'" he said.
That idea led Nguyen to create a STEM project for the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's iteration of the International Science of Engineering Fair, called the CREST Jane Goodall Science Symposium. His idea was a small generator powered by a wind turbine that could be mounted on a kite. His goal was that it would be powerful enough to support several hours of power, lightweight enough to carry around in his duffle bag, and be easily deployable even for a novice kiteflier.
"It's fairly user friendly," Nguyen said. "I intentionally designed it so that the kite itself doesn't have any frames, so that it's really easy to repair because you don't have to worry about breaking rods or anything like that, and it just inflates, so you hold it into the wind and the wind inflates it and it doesn't take much to get it off the ground."
The project was a smashing success, winning him numerous awards, including the 2019 WLWV Middle School Science Fair's Electrical & Mechanical Engineering category, the Lemelson Early Inventor Prize, two Naval Sciences Awards, and the US President's Award for Educational Excellence. Despite his list of accolades, Nguyen is humble about his success and is quick to thank all of the resources and people that helped him along the way.
"I'm what people call a sport kite flyer," he said. "I don't really make kites. I fly kites that are already available that you can fly to music and all that. So, this is really out of my comfort zone.
One of the people that Nguyen got to meet was master kite builder Rod Thrall, an internationally recognized kite artisan that has created specialty kites in the 100-square-foot wide range.
"He was an expert on the kind of kite that I needed to lift the weight that I needed it to," Nguyen said.
Danielle Grenier, ISEF program coordinator for West Linn-Wilsonville School District, said those connections are what STEM projects and getting involved with the science fair is all about.
"We help students of all types achieve projects, like Dylan's, on the regular," Grenier said, "and most of it comes from students having a really genuine passion for a subject that they're not getting to go deep enough in the classroom. So the District, by providing an employee like me, is saying, 'Here! We're going to give you people and resources and some connections to the community that help you take it to the next level. We're just kind of this jumping off point for the kids."
One of the connections that was created by Nguyen's project happened at the American Kitefliers Association Grand National Championship last summer. While presenting his project and competing, Nguyen had the opportunity to meet a scientist from one of his favorite aerospace engineering organizations, NASA.
"I introduced myself and did that usual thing and then — for maybe the first five minutes — it was terrifying because he was grilling me," Nguyen said. "He grilled me on all the specs of my project, things like, 'What's the wattage? How many amps are you pulling out of this? How high can it fly? Did you get it to work?' and all that."
Nguyen discovered that the reason why he was interrogated so closely was because the man was a part of a NASA research team that utilizes kites for surveying and scientific research.
"He wanted to see what I was doing so that we could exchange ideas," Nguyen said. "I later found out that I actually had something to bring to the table. At NASA, the kites that they use and the instruments that they use have a limited battery with limited power, so they can only do maybe a couple of hours at most of recording."
WIth Nguyen's system added to NASA's kites, he said that they could extend the length of their missions by hours.
"This project kind of makes me think about what I can do in engineering and the kind of engineer that I want to be, and how I can contribute, even in my own little way right now," he said. "When I was a kid, I was really into NASA and what they did. I really loved what they did, especially with the Apollo Project and the upcoming Orion Mission, and it's been something that I've really looked into and loved and I told him that I want to be an aerospace engineer and we had a good talk about that."
Despite his success with his current design, Nguyen is still working to innovate and improve his design. The next iteration came to him this past August after being shaken by a tsunami warning.
"At this year's Washington State International Kite Festival, it was 4 A.M. and the tsunami warning siren went off," he said.
Although he later found out that the siren is used to wake up the volunteer firefighters, the event acted as a catalyst.
"With the growing threat of earthquakes and tsunamis, the reality of it is kind of scary and I thought, 'What is something that I can do about it? What's something that people don't have that can make the relief of the disaster a lot better?' and then I thought about my little kite project and I thought it could be useful," he said.
While researching, he found an old design from the US Air Force of a kite with an antenna attached to it. In the event of a plane crash, the kite would be deployed and the antenna activated so that the downed aircraft could be located by rescue teams.
"To say the least, my design is decent," he admits. "So what I want to be doing this year is changing the focus a little bit, where I would put something like an antenna on the kite so it becomes kind of like a beacon."
The new design is meant to help establish contact between separated communities or resources after an earthquake or other disaster.
"My kite is white and if I put LED lights on it, at night you'll be able to get a very good idea of where someone is, and using the current system of color signals, I can also use the kite as a signal," he said. "So you make the relief effort a lot more efficient. "
To top it off, the kite and power system components only cost about $100.
Despite being a novice in the world of kite building and engineering, Nguyen is far from randomly grasping at straws to find success.
"It's my favorite thing in the world when he corrects me when I've said something incorrect or referred to the wrong terminology," Danielle Grenier said. "He's tremendous in that regard and you can really see the mastery of his concept perpetuates continued depth in that field and it's fantastic."
With more than four months left until he presents his updated kite project at the next science fair, Nguyen said that he wants to work to reduce the weight of the frame, possibly through 3D printing. Thanks to his ISF connections, he already knows of a 3D printer that could help.
"With kites, this is interesting and new," Nguyen said. "It's fun. I like to build kites now, and because of this project I know how to sew now, and I think that it's better than any old science experiment because it's doing what I love."
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