High school robotics team engineers cost-effective part for U.S. Air Force

Knob Noster team’s invention is now on board all B-2 Stealth Bombers

Sometimes the most amazing part of an engineering challenge is not the solution itself, but the process and players involved.

Late last year, Brigadier General John Nichols, Commander of the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, faced a recurring safety issue on the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber. An in-flight emergency had forced a B-2 training mission into an unplanned landing. The ensuing investigation revealed that a set of switches inside the cockpit had inadvertently been moved on several occasions, causing an Airframe Mounted Accessory Drive (generator and hydraulics) to decouple from its associated engine in flight.

Although the highly skilled pilots handled the emergency deftly, General Nichols sought an immediate and permanent solution. Operating under the Air Force Global Strike Command directives to “innovate, partner, reduce costs, move fast and solve problems,” General Nichols tapped an unexpected partner—the Knob Noster school district and its robotics team—to address the problem.

The Knob Noster students were prepared for the challenge. Chris Adams teaches Project Lead The Way engineering courses and is Head Coach for Stealth Panther Robotics 6424, the school’s FIRST Robotics Competition team. He presented the Air Force’s challenge to students in his PLTW courses and to the robotics team.

Armed with computer-aided drafting and design (CADD), a heavily modified classroom 3D printer, and a vacuum chamber from a FoodSaver vacuum canning system, over the next 72 hours the team rapidly designed, printed and tested multiple prototypes. 

Team 6424 was invited to the B-2 flight simulator where they met with Whiteman Air Force Base leadership, B-2 pilots and mechanical engineers to test their designs. The students received valuable feedback from the very people their solution would affect and integrated that feedback into to their final solution. 

With several more refinements, the Version 8 prototype and design was submitted to the Air Force and was approved Nov. 4, 2018. Taking a page from their robotics season playbook and PLTW engineering classes, Team 6424’s focus shifted to rapid manufacturing. The team ran its 3D printer 24/7 for the next three weeks to manufacture over 35 final devices now in use in every B-2 and training simulators.

The power of a STEM Learning Ecosystem

Martha McCabe, Executive Director of the KC STEM Alliance, says the story is a wonderful illustration of the power of a STEM learning ecosystem.

“Knob Noster offers two best-practice STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs to its students—PLTW curriculum in school and FIRST Robotics after school,” McCabe said. “And because the school district, the community and its major industry—the Air Force Base—all work together in a connected and meaningful way, the students get to translate what they’re learning in the classroom into real problem solving.”

STEM learning ecosystems are part of a national effort to engage young people in science, technology, engineering and math through strong interconnected community networks.

Kansas City was among the first set of communities in the nation to receive an official STEM Learning Ecosystem designation from the STEM Funders Network. KC STEM Alliance serves as the backbone organization, encouraging all parts of the community to actively engage.

“Communities like Knob Noster show the power of this connectedness,” McCabe said. “It’s exciting to see how prepared these students were to tackle this challenge head on.”

Coach Adams noted how well the requirements of the Air Force challenge align with what teams learn over the course of a FIRST Robotics season: “This project demanded STEM thinking, critical problem solving, product manufacturing, testing and quality assurance, all of which occurred in a very condensed and expedited timeline. This is exactly what FIRST Robotics prepares our students to do, and do well!”

The community was introduced to FIRST Robotics in 2016 when FIRST founder Dean Kamen received an incentive flight in the B-2 Stealth Bomber. His passion for STEM helped lead to the creation of Stealth Panther Robotics through grant support from Department of Defense Education Activities, Northrop Grumman and others. The team earned a Rookie All Star Award in year one, and in year two advanced to the FIRST World Championship in Houston, Texas. 

Expanding FIRST’s reach

Now with additional grants from the Department of Defense and others, Knob Noster is integrating FIRST programs across all grade levels with the introduction of a Robotics Special, FIRST LEGO League Jr., and seven FIRST LEGO League teams.

“A STEM learning ecosystem puts students at the center of everything,” McCabe said. “Knob Noster nurtures its young people’s confidence in their STEM capabilities by engaging them in challenging problem solving and recognizing their efforts publicly. And they take it a step further by connecting this work to STEM career opportunities.”

McCabe said Kansas City’s STEM learning ecosystem uses the same strategies: “I encourage everyone to find out how they can engage—mentor, volunteer, allow job shadows and network.”

Find ways to get involved with STEM organizations in the Kansas City region.