Osman Warfa, a sophomore at Burnsville High School, said his favorite activity as a child was building model airplanes.
“I used to create my own models and try different designs to see how they would fly,” he said.
After crashing one of those models into a tree, he noticed how a small change to the wing created a big change in the way the plane flew. Years later, that change served as the inspiration for a school project that recently earned him a coveted spot at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).
Warfa was one of 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries selected to participate in the fair, held May 16-18 in Phoenix, Ariz. He spent eight hours presenting his project, “Stability of Varied Winglets,” to the professional scientists and engineers who served as judges.
Originally created for his honors biology class, Warfa’s project aimed to determine how the stability of an aircraft wing would be affected by differently angled winglets, which are projections at the tips of the wings.
“Without a winglet, the air going over and underneath the wing will move in circular patterns called wingtip vortices, which create drag, especially during takeoff and landing, the most unstable part of a flight,” he said. “So I was testing different angles on the winglets to see how that would change the flight dynamics.”
His project initially won two awards at the Twin Cities Regional Science Fair: an Inspiring Excellence Award and a U.S. Air Force Award. Out of nearly 400 projects, his was one of only a handful chosen to advance to ISEF. Students with winning projects at ISEF are awarded scholarships and cash prizes, including a $75,000 grand prize award.
“I had no idea I would get accepted to ISEF. I remember doing science fairs in sixth or seventh grade and I would see the names of the people who got into ISEF, and I wanted to do that really badly,” he said. “I was really excited.”
Warfa built all of his wing models in the BHS fabrication lab - called the “fab lab” - which is chock-full of tools and equipment for engineering classes. They were created using a 3D printer, and he tested them using the lab’s wind tunnel.
“I took Introduction to Engineering Design last year, where we used software to create 3D models. That class had a really big impact on how I created those wings this year,” he said. “My engineering teacher Mr. (Orion) Patrie and my biology teacher Mr. (Mike) Huemoeller have been a real help with this project.”
Huemoeller said advancing to ISEF is “a pretty big deal” and he thinks Warfa has an amazing future ahead of him.
“I’m really impressed with him. I knew right away his project was exceptional,” he said. “One of the things I look for is critical thinking, which he had in abundance, and then solving and designing. We want students to learn how to experiment and then really think critically and creatively about ways to solve problems. I thought the way he went about designing it in our fab lab was particularly good, and he did a lot of trials and had a lot of data.”
Warfa, whose ultimate goal is to become a Navy pilot, said seeing all of the different projects students presented was an invaluable learning experience. And even though he didn’t win anything this time, he plans to use what he learned to make some changes and try to get to ISEF again next year.
“During flight the wings aren’t static – they bend up. So next year I’m going to try to build a wing that can bend in the wind tunnel and test it with the winglets, as well,” he said.
While he enjoyed his entire experience at ISEF, he said his favorite part was connecting with people from all over the world.
“I just liked making new friends and getting to know people from different countries. I’m Kenyan, and I speak Swahili, and I met students from Kenya and got to talk to them in Swahili,” he said. “That was really cool.”